Homeless for the holidays

Melati Citrawireja/Staff
UC Berkeley junior Virginia Yen, center, serves a meal at the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which serves hot meals to more than 150 individuals four nights a week.

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Visions of turkey dinners and family festivities mark the coming of the holiday season, but for the homeless of Berkeley, the coming weeks are known more for their cold, wet nights than for holiday cheer.

“There are no holidays for the homeless,” said David Stegman, executive director of the Dorothy Day House of Berkeley, a nonprofit that serves the city’s homeless and very low-income residents. “Every day is basically the same — just a daily routine of survival. They need basic services: hot food, shelter, a place to go to the bathroom, a place to get clean.”

Warren Summons has been without a home for two years. With the weather getting colder, he was recently hospitalized for walking pneumonia.

“I believe that humans should be human, and they should reach out to anyone,” Summons said. “If you see someone out there without a coat, you know something’s wrong. You got one on — you know it’s cold.”

For some people, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can be emotionally difficult and lonely — a feeling all too familiar for the homeless of Berkeley. Providing meals, as many churches and organizations in the area do regularly, can do more than just fill a stomach.

Bill Beasley, a 77-year-old low-income Berkeley resident, said Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two most important days for sharing.

“The holiday season is the most lonely time of the year because you’re away from family and you’re away from relatives,” Beasley said. “You want to share a home or a place so they can sit down and feel a part of something.”

According to Stegman, the homeless remain marginalized despite increased generosity during the holiday season.

“People don’t want to see them — they walk around them,” Stegman said. “The homeless call it ‘being in the shadows,’ as if they don’t exist.”

Heidi Dittrich is a UC Berkeley senior majoring in public health and is the head of the mental task force for the Suitcase Clinic, a student organization that offers free health and social services. She encourages people to serve the homeless not necessarily in organized projects but in their day-to-day interactions.

“Every day we go to class, you see a homeless person sitting on the street or standing on the corner, and a lot of the time, people won’t even look at these people in the eye,” Dittrich said. “While we’re in a haste to get to class, it’s really dehumanizing for these people to not even be recognized.”

Beyond breaking down the marginalization of the homeless, community members can help during the holidays by contributing to the programs and organizations that regularly serve the homeless and low-income in Berkeley.

Students wanting to organize clothing or food drives can bring the collected items to the Suitcase Clinic for the volunteers to distribute. Dittrich said that winter coats, sleeping bags and socks are most needed.

Berkeley High School hosts an annual Holiday Meal on Dec. 12 for homeless and low-income community members. John Villavicencio, director of Berkeley High student activities, said people can contribute by preparing a fresh dish to drop off on the morning of Dec. 12 or by bringing canned goods, toiletries, warm coats and blankets to Berkeley High during school hours.

Staff writer Michelle Leung contributed to this report.

Contact Amelia Mineiro at [email protected].

A previous version of this article omitted the fact that staff writer Michelle Leung contributed to this report.