Homelessness hits where it hurts

A look at the issue of being homeless on Southside

Jacob Wilson/Staff

First they encamped a half-block away.

Then, they moved closer, their flimsy mats and tattered blankets haphazardly covering them. Before blacking out from alcohol, they rock the block with merriment, obscenities and mutual contempt.

That is some nights. The scene changes nightly. Sometimes they don’t show up.

I live a half-block south of People’s Park and a cluster of dorms and student apartments housing a big chunk of the student demographic.

You could call it a student ghetto, although when I moved into this 67-unit monolith on Hillegass Avenue in 1980, I just needed a home — ghetto or not.

I identify with Dustin Hoffman, an “outside agitator,” in The Graduate and can trace my life in teaspoons from Caffe Mediterraneum, where I often sit at the Dustin Hoffman window-seat. A 1967 scene from “The Graduate,” shot in Caffe Med, looks down from a framed photo at my back as I have watched the passing student scene all these years.

Our building went into lockdown a few years ago after a female student was sexually assaulted outside. I wrote about it in the Berkeley Daily Planet in a long piece on campus sex crimes.

I described the terror in her eyes, shortly after the attack, just outside our gates. I didn’t see the attack. That’s when I first began to see my student homies under siege, but I never thought I’d see homeless at our gates.

But coming home from Caffe Med at 10 p.m. recently, what I had dreaded — but expected — occurred. But instead of a sleep-in, it was just a party of three who had descended the steps out front and hunkered down, their backs against our gate.

All they wanted was to blow a little weed and consume a few brewskis. I fought the urge to return later, to see what had become of the party or to find out whether students in units facing the street had complained. My unit does not face the street.

You see, I was homeless in the late 1970s and have these apartment-invasion dreams in which my nest is violated, usually by marauders who make off with my swag.

Sometimes, when I ruminate on my conflict of interests, I recall “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville’s 1853 novella of homelessness on Wall Street, in which the narrator’s male copyist refuses to work but takes up residence in a cubicle in the law office where he had once worked.

Our building’s manager, a hardworking immigrant, has always despised the homeless. He thinks they are just lazy. His opinions are locked down, like his building.

It wouldn’t help to confess to him that I was once one of the so-called bums he despises. Some of the street kids call themselves street tramps.
Meanwhile,  the blithering street-dorm down the street moves closer, like a sea swallowing a life-boat.

One day soon,  drunken crazies — my former comrades — will arrive at my doorstep to bed down.

Then what?

Ted Friedman reports on Southside for the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]