A woman smiling for a portrait photo, wearing a red and gold blouse and standing in front of a grey background.
Filmmaker Cheryl Fabio. Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl Fabio

The new film A Rising Tide examines the dilemmas unhoused families face in Alameda County and seeks to spur community action to eradicate the tragedy of homelessness.

The film is the latest offering from Oakland resident and veteran filmmaker Cheryl Fabio. Speaking by phone with The Oaklandside recently, Fabio described her path to filmmaking and her intentions in producing A Rising Tide.

Upcoming screenings of A Rising Tide

  • Sept. 16, 2023, 2:00 p.m. at Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch Library, 1901 Russell St., Berkeley
  • Sept. 21, 2023, 3:30 p.m. at the Oakland International Film Festival, 3200 Grand Ave., Oakland
  • Sept. 22, 2023, 7:00 p.m. at Scribe Video Center, 3908 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia, PA
  • Sept. 29, 2023, 7:00 p.m. at Eastside Arts Alliance, 2277 International Blvd., Oakland

In July of 2003, Fabio lost her job as the operations manager of KTOP, the city of Oakland’s government access channel. “Faced with the challenge of providing for my family, I felt too old to just swing into the next job,” she said. Fabio decided to make a big switch. She enrolled in law school with an interest in the criminal justice system. But after graduating and failing the bar, she gradually returned to film production.

“Even though KTOP was a management job, I had done everything I could to hone my production chops in that position,” she said.

In 2016, Fabio picked up work with a graphic design company that was helping Alameda County with an annual report about the county’s homelessness and affordable housing programs. “I was hired by that company to interview folks with lived experience. This informed my knowledge of the changing terrain of affordable housing,” she said.

A few things in the county report jumped out at Fabio, including how many of the county’s homeless people were Oakland residents. “The fact that 70% of them were Black was just mind-boggling,” she said. Fabio felt that the data revealed a lack of forethought among county officials to ensure that low-income Black people’s housing needs were being met. Fabio eventually decided to make a film about homelessness in the East Bay.

“Our narrative of homelessness is no longer accurate,” said Fabio. “Today’s homelessness is much broader. We must dig deeper into why folks are experiencing homelessness, and we can then address solutions more accurately. Moreover, all of us have a role to play in solving homelessness. Once we activate, we’ll be the political will that resolves this issue.”

The stories presented in the documentary are heart-wrenching and Fabio insists that viewers approach them not as “case studies,” but rather as “Black Families facing homelessness, telling their own stories,” with urgency.

One mother in the film, Rahnee Williams, has four daughters and also looks after two nephews. Felicity, Williams’ youngest daughter, dreams of being a hairstylist and opening her own shop. Rahnee is inspired by her daughter’s drive to succeed despite being impacted by COVID-19 and living unhoused. “She recognizes that she’s strong because she’s been through a lot,” says the mother.

After five years of homelessness, including stints at shelters and motels, Williams’ family finally finds a permanent home in the neighborhood she grew up in. 

Like other people who’ve experienced homelessness, she becomes a volunteer, giving back to the unhoused community by preparing and delivering meals.

Another person featured in the film, Erika Neely, is a 28-year-old mother of two daughters. Neely grew up in foster care and found herself desperately fighting for decent housing for years after emancipating from the foster care system when she was 16. Her trek documented in the film includes being out in the street and engaging in sex work to survive. Although Neely is frustrated by a seemingly dead-end series of revolving doors at government agencies and service providers, in the end, she and her two daughters succeed in finding a new home.

To illuminate the complex causes and consequences of homelessness, Fabio drew heavily on the expertise of professionals and community activists like Dr. Tony Jackson, president of the Black Psychologists Association, and Dr. Christine Ma, pediatrician and medical director of UCSF’s Encore Medical Clinic.

“When people think of homelessness, they think of homeless encampments and people sleeping on the street,” Ma explains in the film. “Families are hidden. Children are not the people we think of as experiencing homelessness. They are hidden, staying temporarily with family or friends, in cars or hotels. They’re moving around, unseen. They carry the trauma of homelessness into adulthood.”