Breaking down barriers: Suitcase Clinic bridges the divide between communities

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Vivian Wan/Staff

As the city of Berkeley faces an acute and extenuating housing crisis, efforts to provide aid to those facing homelessness often run into a wall built on stigmas and stereotypes.

The Suitcase Clinic is one of the organizations attempting to break down those barriers.

“Sometimes students and campus officials kind of look at people on the streets as a backdrop to the world and don’t actually acknowledge them as individuals,” said Ryan Farquhar, an undergraduate GSI with the organization. “If you don’t take the steps to acknowledge it, it’s not going to go away.”

The clinic is held at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley and other nearby locations, and it offers three free multi-service drop-in centers aimed at addressing the specific needs of different groups: the General Clinic, the Womxn’s Clinic and the Youth/LGBTQ+ Clinic. But one of its main goals is a social one: fostering a sense of community between people facing homelessness and volunteers at the Suitcase Clinic.

“I think a big step that we needed to take was to go to People’s Park, to the encampment on MLK, to walk around on Shattuck and Telegraph … and strike up conversations with people to get a sense of like what they’re looking for from Suitcase, what they’re looking for from life, what kinds of things make them passionate and make them get up every day,” said Sumaiya Mubarack, a volunteer at the Suitcase Clinic and the Outreach Task Force co-leader.

“We’re trying to create a culture where people don’t avert their eyes,” Mubarack explained. “We need to break down the divide between the Cal student population and the larger community, including people who are unhoused.” But Mubarack also admits that Suitcase is still experiencing “growing pains” in terms of how this mission plays out day to day.

“We’re trying to create a culture where people don’t avert their eyes”

— Sumaiya Mubarack

Undergraduates — trained in a semesterlong UC Berkeley course — are now the backbone of the organization: coordinating various divisions, conducting evaluations and raising the necessary funds.

“Suitcase prevents you from walking past another person again and doing nothing about it,” Mubarack said. “It really prioritizes getting people to a contextual understanding of homelessness, so we’re not just learning about something really quickly and doing this superficially.”

Farquhar agreed. He described volunteering with Suitcase as a “community effort, rather than offering someone services.”

This service strategy — offering resources to the homeless community while also befriending and working with people facing homelessness — aims to alter the perspectives of everyone involved, and foster a mutual sense of participation and membership in the Suitcase Clinic community.

Much of The Suitcase Clinic’s efforts are directed toward the community at People’s Park, a flashpoint of confrontation between the UC Berkeley administration — which has shown it is not opposed to displacing people from the park if that means having new student housing — and students and community members who argue for the preservation of the space.

Although the ASUC Housing Commission opposed the university’s proposal to build housing in People’s Park in February, the university can still legally develop there until its 50th anniversary in 2019. According to National Historic Landmarks laws, once the park reaches its 50th anniversary, it will be eligible to become as a historical landmark and thus no longer be available for development.

“People’s Park has been a safe haven for so many people in the community,” said Robin Housley, a resident of People’s Park and co-founder of Shift – Communication, Consciousness and Priorities. “It makes me frustrated.”

“It feels like losing — like losing something valuable for economic interest,” said Ryan Smith, another resident of People’s Park and a UC Berkeley alumnus.

According to Farquhar, the People’s Park crisis stems from negative stigmas surrounding homelessness and the separation within the community.

“There’s a housing crisis and it’s not just for the students — it’s also for the locals.”

— Ryan Farquhar

“When you talk to college students about People’s Park they have this negative association, but they don’t sometimes realize the significance of that,” Farquhar said. “There’s a housing crisis and it’s not just for the students — it’s also for the locals. We have to think about how it’ll affect the local community. A lot of people facing homelessness in the area are locals that have been around in this area for a long time.”

The broad significance People’s Park holds inspired the Suitcase Clinic to organize a solidarity week, which will confront various issues surrounding homelessness and about the fractured relationship between UC Berkeley students and people facing homelessness.

“We’re going to try to do a whole week of Sprouling and tabling, but we also want to start conversations and have a dialogue. We’re also going to have two events on the weekend — an open public forum and a benefit concert,” Farquhar said.

Farquhar explained that solidarity week aims to bring UC Berkeley students out of the “Berkeley bubble,” and to think and be aware of the community disconnect. The event will also attempt to educate students on ways to become more involved in the local government and help support legislation that affects the community. Most importantly, Farquhar said that solidarity week is advocating for “ ‘no more silence’ solidarity” — taking action to change rather than simply empathizing with community members facing homelessness.  

Both Mubarack and Farquhar stressed that there are a multitude of ways in which all UC Berkeley students can take part in the Suitcase Clinic’s mission.

“There are so many ways to get involved,” Farquhar said. “Self-education, being up-to-date on the issues that are going on and addressing your own stigmas and biases are all very important. You need to just sit down and talk to people and acknowledge them as the people that they are, not just that backdrop that society treats them as.”

Mubarack believes that service is ensuring that people facing homelessness feel as if they are valued and equal contributors and members of the community.

“It’s not necessarily about giving someone a meal or giving someone a checkup; it’s getting people used to the idea that there are about 100 people sitting on campus who really care about you and want to take your idea and give you the resources to do it,” Mubarack said. “I think it’s a really important shift in thinking not to limit ourselves to just a service provision or seeing people as something that needs to be fixed.”

To members of the Suitcase Clinic, service is not a one-sided ordeal. It is a complicated process that entails confronting our own stereotypes and biases. By involving people facing homelessness in our efforts and creating relationships, we might be able to have a truly unified community — one that prioritizes the needs and interests of people facing homelessness in Berkeley.

Contact Elizabeth Neoman at [email protected]