Berkeley community need to understand, support homeless population

Homeless people sitting on a sidewalk with tents
Evelyn Zou/Staff

What is a homeless person? Someone to be shunned? Someone to be regulated? Someone to be criminalized? Someone to be removed?

Humanity is often forgotten when it comes to the homeless. When the homeless are discussed, it seems there is always an agenda. There is a goal. Make life miserable for them, and they will go away. Remove their stability. Take their possessions. Cite them. Ban things that can make homeless life easier. Take away a good night’s sleep. Accuse them of things they cannot control.

One addict, one pile of poop, one aggressive individual, and it seems to be assumed that the cause is homelessness.

Understanding is needed when it comes to issues surrounding homelessness, but it’s never attempted by housed people. People need to understand what homeless life really entails. They need to hear it from someone who survived it. And both cities and housed people need to listen to those stories.

Homeless people face many of the same issues as housed people. There are housed addicts, housed people making bad decisions and housed people struggling with their mental health. The difference is visibility. Homeless people have their entire lives on public display. Housed people have no concept of what that’s like. While on public display, the homeless experience bad looks, rude comments, people distancing themselves as they walk by and people rapidly looking away. This happens all day, every day. And at night, it’s worse. Homeless people get kicked, have things thrown at them, get peed on, and may be raped and sometimes murdered. There is no peace of mind, and coping through drug use and alcoholism can often feel like the only way out. Understanding this is important.

So is understanding what having a tent represents. For the homeless, sleeping exposed is the worst feeling. They cover their heads completely because under that cover is their privacy. The distance from their skin to the cover is all they get. The protection against wind is limited by the quality of the covering, and protection from rain is nonexistent. The knowledge that your possessions are vulnerable or that you might get attacked makes a good sleep impossible. Having a stable tent allows for the homeless person to have shelter and privacy. They have personal space. They have storage. They have security. They have peace of mind. They can live on their own schedules instead of living by hours of operation.

Berkeley’s oldest homeless person we found was an 82-year-old woman who had to live in a parking garage. Imagine needing a motorized wheelchair to get around and not being able to charge it. Imagine knowing that you’re going to die before you get help. Imagine knowing that there is no hope. Imagine knowing that you are hated and disposable. To survive that onslaught of negativity and hate takes toughness. And it takes something the public seems to have forgotten. It takes a community.

In 2011, a group of homeless people created First They Came for the Homeless as a means to fight back. Our goals were simple. We wanted to demonstrate the futility of homeless sweeps. We wanted to show Berkeley that a well-run encampment can work and prove that the homeless are capable of caring for themselves in a community setting. We sought to demonstrate the importance of community in healing the mind and in helping the sick. By allowing the homeless to become stable, we could facilitate improving their quality of life while offering them shelter. And did we succeed?

Yes. By how much? Many have been able to leave the First They Came for the Homeless encampment we founded for a better housing option. Who maintains the camp? The homeless residents do. They have eight rules and run the camp through consensus. They have been the ones saving lives by sheltering many of the most vulnerable in Berkeley. They have handled some of the most difficult homeless people in the city — people the city just could not deal with. They did it because they understood what they needed. They succeeded because they know how it feels to be hated, and they have genuine compassion. Their agenda is saving lives. Money never enters into decisions.

The same cannot be said for the decision-makers. Businesses lobby for bans that regulate the homeless. They cannot directly ban homelessness, so they indirectly advocate for bans on homeless people’s possessions. The business district wins. RVs were banned. Next thing banned was possessions on the sidewalk. Not all possessions, of course. Nine square feet is allowed. This limitation on space removes the most important things the homeless have. Reducing the footprint means no tents and no stability. No freedom to move around and accomplish things without carrying gear. No ability to retreat for personal space. The homeless are back to existing completely exposed to public scrutiny. Back to the judging looks, comments and hate.

There is only one cause of homelessness: not being able to pay rent. There is only one solution: enough affordable housing. Unfortunately, cities like Berkeley do not seem to be effectively investing in this.

What is a homeless person? Anyone who does not have a key to their own place. That’s a lot of Americans.

Mike Zint is a co-founder of the homeless activist group First They Came for the Homeless.