I came to Berkeley just eight months ago to bring a vision to fruition. My vision is one that is shared by thousands of nonprofit employees, city employees, and unhoused and housed people alike: I want to live in a place that creates opportunity and equity, that builds space and community for all people, especially those who have been dealt a difficult hand in life. My version of actualizing that vision is through creating pathways out of homelessness.
I’ve borne witness to the lives and transformations of hundreds of people experiencing homelessness as their case manager, neighbor and friend. For the past five years, I’ve had the deep and privileged opportunity to work for an organization called Downtown Streets Team.
Downtown Streets Team is a Bay Area nonprofit that provides a volunteer work experience program for unhoused people. Through beautifying the community, folks experiencing homelessness gain access to case management, employment guidance and assistance with their basic needs (transportation, communication, food, hygiene and clothing). Our team members, people participating in the program, engage in a positive community of people working toward their goals and ultimately toward attaining self-sufficiency.
We received funding from Berkeley’s Public Works department and launched with our first team members in late August 2018. I thought this was the watershed moment; with Berkeley’s liberal and humanistic personality, we would be innately absorbed into the fabric of the community. As it turns out, that was a naive misconception.
It’s been a slow and steady building process. I hadn’t realized that the Berkeley community had become beleaguered under the weight of carrying the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the East Bay. Of the 122,324 individuals living in Berkeley, 972 are unhoused, according to a 2017 point-in-time count. I’m horrified to see the analytics for the 2019 count when they are released in late summer; all we know thus far is that Alameda County has seen an uptick of 43 percent in homelessness between 2017 and 2019. The transparent and constant needs of what is likely well over a thousand people experiencing homelessness has worn through even the most generous and well-to-do communities.
It hurts to acknowledge and recognize the true extent of inequity and unreconciled suffering on nearly every commercial street corner in Berkeley. It’s much easier to compartmentalize and “other” individuals in such a challenging situation, to try to tell ourselves that the world is just and that this will not happen to us. To reduce this struggle to an individual failure rather than a societal issue gives us a sense of separation and blamelessness. This phenomenon is called compassion fatigue.
Let’s talk about what’s at the heart of the homeless crisis. Trauma, mental and physical illness, and lack of opportunities and safety nets are the real culprits. U.S. policy in the 1980s bred the start of epidemical homelessness: Forces such as federal divestment in affordable housing and mental health services, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, declining personal incomes and cuts in welfare created a perfect storm that made already vulnerable individuals unable to afford or maintain housing. The Bay Area has been hit the hardest; we have had injection after injection of tech jobs without comparable development in housing infrastructure, leaving us with a formidable deficit in housing and affordability and a subsequent homeless crisis to contend with.
These big policy and economic factors, compounded with personal vulnerabilities and tragedies, built this epidemic. These forces are identifiable; they aren’t amorphous. The reality is that we can band together and alter these forces, starting with what we do in our own backyards.
I’m surrounded by team members with awe-inspiring life stories, with admirable grace and courage, with fine-tuned skills and talents, and with big dreams and goals. Everyone deserves to be brought in: brought into shelter, brought into jobs, brought into acceptance, brought into community. When our team members invest in improving their community, their community should invest right back in helping to improve their quality of life.
Berkeley is full of brilliant people with huge hearts. Keep caring, keep looking people in the eye and seeing their humanity, even when their lack of resources inconveniences you. Make your impact on ending homelessness, whether it’s through getting to know your unhoused neighbor on your way to work, investing in an organization doing work that you admire or volunteering your time to help improve your community. We can all take a stake in shaking off the compassion fatigue and stepping up to the plate to break down barriers between the housed and the houseless. Homelessness is an experience, not an identity.
Julia Lang is Downtown Streets Team’s director for the East Bay.