Alejandra Ruiz, left, and husband Sergio have been together 20 years and known each other even longer. Their relationship is a guiding force as they face the hardships of houselessness. Credit: Amir Aziz

Sergio and Alejandra Ruiz were just kids the first time they lived across the street from each other.

Sergio was around 11 and Alejandra was a headphone-wearing, 16-year-old Fremont High student who thought of her neighbor in the apartment building across from her blue house like “a little brother.” Then Sergio moved, and they lost touch. 

He moved back to High Street several years later, now a teenager himself. He “was different,” said Alejandra. She wanted to spend more time with him. They’d go on neighborhood walks and talk about their days. “He was younger but he didn’t act like a kid. His head was in the right place.” 

She learned that the years in between had been harrowing ones for Sergio, who’d been whisked back to his native Mexico by his concerned parents after he was brutally jumped in Oakland by a group of boys. 

When he returned to his hometown, Chavinda in Michoacán, it had changed too much since he’d last lived there as a child. Or Sergio had changed too much. He was an Oaklander now. He decided to cross the border and return to California on his own, an experience that almost cost him his life when the group he was with left him alone in the desert, while he was sleeping. 

“I ran without stopping until I caught up,” said Sergio, now 40, recalling lifeless bodies he witnessed along the way. “I don’t wish that on my worst enemy.” 

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Sergio and Alejandra Ruiz spent many years, on and off, living across High Street from each other, and eventually sharing a home there. Credit: Amir Aziz

That journey was far from the last hardship the Ruizes would face, both individually and together. They’ve now been married for 18 years, and for the last three they’ve lived on the streets, currently in a tent on Alameda Avenue amid a seemingly endless row of RVs and makeshift shelters snaking out from the Home Depot parking lot, just over a mile away from where they both grew up. Cars whiz by inches from the Ruizes’ tent, a noisy and risky place to live.

“We’ve been through hell and back,” said Alejandra, 45, walking along the canal that separates Oakland from Alameda under a bizarrely scorching February sun. “But we’re still sticking together.”

The couple doesn’t have the means to celebrate Valentine’s Day like they used to—embarrassing each other by delivering lavish bouquets to their former workplaces—but their relationship, which has now lasted nearly half their lives, is a large part of what enables them to survive both the trauma and daily struggles of living without permanent housing.

“The streets make or break you, and this is not going to break us,” said Alejandra.

Building a family and rebuilding bridges

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The Ruizes used to surprise one another with flowers on Valentine’s Day, showing up unexpectedly at their former workplaces. Credit: Amir Aziz

Sergio has saved a startling number of lives.

He remembers watching a heavy branch fall on his father’s head while pruning a tree, when they lived in Mexico when Sergio was a child. Sergio managed to lift his dad onto a horse and get him to a doctor, who said his father was lucky to be alive. 

Just a couple of years ago in Oakland, Sergio came across a woman whose foot had been caught on a train track crossing High Street and didn’t seem aware of the danger she was in. With horror, he watched a train approaching in the distance. He shoved her free and they both collapsed on the gravel. She cursed him out for pushing her, he said, but when they ran into each other a couple days later, she realized what could have happened and was grateful.

Alejandra has also benefited from Sergio’s ability to spring to action in a crisis.

For years she worked as a medical assistant at La Clínica, and that’s where she and Sergio were the day she fell. She was pregnant with the couple’s second child, and she tripped in a doorway.

“I held onto the doorknob, and he ran to grab me as soon as I slipped,” Alejandra said. “I was crying and in pain, and the baby wasn’t moving.” 

After a scary and exhausting hospital stay, with Sergio at her side throughout, Alejandra later gave birth to a girl, the second of her and Sergio’s five daughters. 

“He wanted girls and he got girls. I wanted boys and I just got him,” Alejandra quipped. They’d quietly gotten married at Oakland City Hall after their first child was born, and they joke that the baby signed the marriage certificate with her footprint.

During those early years as a family, life wasn’t easy but they found time to enjoy each other, taking trips to the county fair and camping in Merced. Sergio worked as an auto painter and Alejandra still had her job at La Clínica.

Initially, they’d moved out for a bit from their family’s homes, staying in a nearby apartment, but they came back to Alejandra’s blue High Street house when they started having kids, despite tension with both sets of relatives, who uniformly disapproved of their partnership. Sergio said he was kicked out of the family home, his brothers beating him up and tearing up clothing he’d gathered to bring to Alejandra’s. 

But over time, Sergio became an integral part of Alejandra’s family, taking care of the beloved grandparents who’d raised her.

When Alejandra’s grandfather fell ill, Sergio “did an amazing job,” she said. “And he took care of all my five girls and did the washing and cleaning. We switched roles because I was working.”

Sergio said he earned her family’s trust because “I show love and respect to the people around me.”

Coping amid catastrophe

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“This is not going to break us,” said Alejandra Ruiz, pictured with husband Sergio at their camp on Alameda Avenue. Credit: Amir Aziz

While the Ruizes weathered many difficult days together as teens and young parents, a number of recent tragedies—the losses of loved ones and jobs—upended their hardwon stability. 

“People don’t understand the trauma and depression a person goes through” while dealing with grief, said Sergio, who lost a brother around the same time Alejandra’s grandparents died about seven years ago. “Every moment they flash in your mind, it’s pain.” 

Around the same time, Alejandra lost her job. The rumblings of grief and change resulted in seismic shifts. More family tension arose. Money got tight, and then tighter. About three years ago, Sergio and Alejandra found themselves without a better option than living outdoors. Their daughters stayed with relatives.

The Ruizes are certain that houselessness is a temporary condition for them, and they feel frustrated and hurt by the snap judgments of people who pass by and seem to assume otherwise.

“This is a moment we’re going through in our lives,” Sergio said. “Some people don’t have love and respect for others, and treat people like rats. Just take five minutes to listen.”

They put a lot of effort into cleaning up their environment. But when people dump trash or abandon stolen cars at their camp, the task can feel futile. 

The city has offered them a spot in one of the RV “safe parking” lots in the past, Alejandra said, but that feels barely better than their current circumstances. 

“That’s not going to make the situation better,” she said. “They spend money on the wrong goddamn things; they need to actually put us in apartments. How many abandoned buildings are there?”

For now, their relationship keeps them going. They look out for each other, comfort each other, and have experienced more together than many couples do in a lifetime. 

But living on Alameda Avenue, it’s not only their romantic partnership but other interpersonal connections with their unhoused neighbors that offer sustenance too.

“On the streets, they’re willing to take a bullet for you,” said Alejandra, as Sergio loaded tools on a cart to fix up a neighbor’s vehicle. “You get to meet wonderful people here.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.