Weeklong poverty and homelessness symposium concludes in call to raise minimum wage

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In the conclusion of a weeklong symposium on poverty and homelessness, students from a diverse coalition of campus service groups rallied at Sather Gate on Friday for minimum wage reform.

The sixth annual symposium highlighted the complexity of homelessness and poverty by focusing on the often-overlooked intersections of these issues with those such as gender inequality and disaster preparedness through a variety of speeches and events.

The symposium was traditionally a one-day event organized by the Suitcase Clinic, a student organization offering health and social services to underserved populations. High attendance encouraged the organizers — which included the campus Habitat for Humanity and American Red Cross chapters as well as the Berkeley Service Network — to host a weeklong symposium this year, according to Rajelin Escondo, a coordinator at the UC Berkeley Public Service Center.

Keynote speaker Boona Cheema, former director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, a nonprofit that provides housing and support services to homeless individuals in Alameda County, kicked off the symposium Monday with a presentation on inequality.

“Berkeley used to be a place where people coexisted,” Escondo said. “Now we ignore the existence of other people.”

According to a count by the city, there were 824 homeless people in Berkeley in 2009, and according to the U.S. census, about 18.1 percent of Berkeley residents’ income fell below the poverty line from 2008 to 2012.
Though the events of the week each had between 20 and 50 attendees, different crowds came to different events, according to Escondo, as each day focused on separate intersections of poverty, homelessness and other social issues.

On Tuesday, the Suitcase Clinic invited three homeless or formerly homeless individuals to a panel on the perceptions and misconceptions about homelessness. On Wednesday, the Women’s Economic Agenda Project addressed gender inequality and homelessness, followed by the campus chapter of the American Red Cross, which discussed the homeless and low-income communities most at risk in the event of a disaster. On Thursday, Human Rights of the Incarcerated spoke about the cycle of incarceration and poverty.

The symposium concluded at noon Friday in a rally for action with the organizers and Angus Teter, a UC Berkeley senior working to raise the city’s minimum hourly wage from $8 to $10.74. Proclaiming that “nobody who’s working should be in poverty,” Teter told a group of about 20 that a full-time minimum-wage worker’s annual pay is about half of Berkeley’s cost of living.
The proposal will be addressed at Berkeley City Council’s April 1 meeting.

Though Cheema said Berkeley has always done more for the homeless than any other city, she argued that the homeless could be helped with better health and mental health services, increased access to education and job training and more affordable housing.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “It’s what you and I need.”

Contact Sahil Chinoy at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.