Goodbye, summer. Hello, rain and cold. The Farmer’s Almanac forecasts this winter to be a brutal one. For most people, this is not a big deal. For the homeless, it could be lethal. And in Berkeley, there are dozens of seniors and seriously disabled individuals who are currently homeless. The city needs to be doing more to help its homeless population.
In 2016, First They Came for the Homeless began the “Poor Tour,” a constant movement of protest encampments as each one was disbanded by the city of Berkeley. First They Came for the Homeless is a local homeless activist group. Over three months, our encampments were raided 17 times, but our commitment to relocating throughout the city remained in order to expose the reasons that these camps were disbanded. Throughout the whole protest, not once did I ever see human feces or needles that weren’t properly disposed of by our diabetics. Furthermore, I never saw trash that was allowed to accumulate. Yet the city continued to disband our camps, and health and safety concerns were typically the reasons given. Not once during the protest were the homeless really treated as victims of health and safety concerns — just as the cause.
It’s hard to get the public to understand homelessness. The common perception is that homeless individuals are on drugs, alcohol or are mentally disabled. The typical description of a homeless camp is that of feces, needles and trash accumulation.
Is this accurate though? No — it’s not even close. Homeless are just like every housed person, except their issues don’t get hidden behind walls. The world can see the drug use, the drinking and the mental state. The perception that those are behaviors that lead to homelessness is easily promoted. What’s hidden is the torture of being homeless and how escaping with drugs or into insanity is often the result.
Constant exposure to the weather. Police waking you up. Police taking everything you own. People giving you bad looks, yelling “get a job,” quickly looking away or giving you a wide berth on the sidewalk. These gestures only add to the systemic torture. Criminalizing survival makes you a prisoner to nonexistent services. There is no stability. There is little hope. There is no other place to go.
Today, First They Came for the Homeless has dozens of people living in tents. We have had hundreds come through our “Here There” encampment. We provided stability, storage, privacy, personal space and community. And many of these individuals have fixed their own lives. Some have secured jobs, saved money and improved their situation.
Our fight continues. The city of Berkeley is soon going to close the temporary homeless shelter right before winter. This is telling. The city is emphasizing the fact that it is restoring the lockers it removed a few years ago, instead of using the money to build housing — this, too, is telling. There is still no affordable housing being built, and our responsibly run, community-based tent city still has not been sanctioned. Homeless people across the city continue to be stepped around and ignored. All these things tell me that, under our current system, only the richest count. There will be no solution as long as profit is more important than people.
Mike Zint is a co-founder of the homeless activist group First They Came for the Homeless