Film premiere sheds light on UC Berkeley student homelessness

Nicholas Chun/Staff

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A film featuring two formerly homeless UC Berkeley students premiered Thursday night in the ASUC Senate chambers with the intention of shedding light on the prevalence of housing insecurity among students.

The 20-minute film, titled “Invisible Students: Homeless at UC Berkeley,” was followed by a panel discussion where representatives from the ASUC, the Basic Needs Committee and campus administration, as well as the students featured in the film, discussed the problem of student homelessness and offered potential solutions. The event ended with an audience Q&A session.

Campus junior Leonard Irving-Thomas and campus senior Taversia, or Tavi, Borrelli, who were both featured in the film, shared their stories about dealing with homelessness at UC Berkeley in the film and during the panel discussion.

In order to understand his situation, Irving-Thomas said people need to take an intersectional approach, because the obstacles he faces don’t stop at economic insecurity. He said his homelessness, race and economic background are all intertwined.

“When people see Black and people of colors’ faces, our spaces are seen as fungible,” Irving-Thomas said during the panel discussion. “It’s innocent — it isn’t hurting anybody. But that’s not how it’s seen.”

He added that being homeless caused his academics to suffer, and that he was disqualified from thousands of dollars of awards because his GPA slipped as a result.

Borrelli echoed Irving-Thomas’ sentiment, stating that being a homeless student inhibited her ability to contribute her full potential to the campus.

“I think I could be a school asset if I were just able to live — if I were just able to have a home,” Borrelli said in the film.

During her time as a homeless student, Borrelli said she was forced to shower at the RSF, had her phone stolen on BART and lost a large amount of weight because of food insecurity.

“There were a lot of things I did to try to make sure that I was surviving, things I wouldn’t have seen myself doing,” Tavi said during the panel discussion. “Because of my inclusion in this film, I was put in touch with the resources I needed to supply myself with housing.”

Though Borrelli said she still experiences food insecurity, she is no longer in the dire situation she was before. Irving-Thomas said he has also found more stable housing this school year, though his living conditions are far from ideal. He alleged that cheap rent allows landlords to justify ignoring tenants’ requests for basic needs such as running water and heat.

Homeless Student Union, or HSU, founder Taylor Harvey discussed a letter that was recently delivered to Chancellor Carol Christ with a list of demands that she said she hopes will help alleviate student homelessness.

“We need to hold the university accountable to its statements, which have often been empty,” Harvey said.

According to campus student and the film’s producer and director Robbie Li, one of the goals of the video was to educate people about the housing insecurity on and around campus, which he hopes will spark conversation.

ASUC president Zaynab Abdul-Qadir Morris said one of the biggest obstacles is that no one wants to confront the issue. She added that she feels impatience toward the issue.

According to Basic Needs Committee chair Ruben Canedo, Berkeley’s status as a public university and its location make it especially difficult to address the issue of homelessness.

“Berkeley is definitely in the worst ‘cost of living’ area,” Canedo said. “Our financial aid package is incredibly restricted by what the federal policies let us do and by state policies. The university has to navigate this impossible land mine to find how to help students in the most specific, extreme … situations.”

According to Canedo, the Basic Needs Committee has been working on solutions, including a recently launched online service called Safe Time that links students to homeowners. He also said he wants to add an option to Airbnb that can help students find housing.

Irving-Thomas said people need to take action without patting themselves on the back for doing it. He added that a “big and true critique of liberalism” is that people who make any difference often develop a savior complex.

“If I were the czar of housing I would’ve made the paradigms behind gentrification not a thing,” Irving-Thomas said. “Now, our fight must be as strong as the systems in place.”

Contact Sri Medicherla at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sri_medicherla.