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Dead body found in UC Berkeley classroom highlights need for sufficient homeless shelters, resources

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JULY 18, 2019

Content warning: Detailed description of death

When I graduated, I felt that a strange hole existed in my learning. As a result, I enrolled in summer courses, unsure of what I’d find but hoping to fill that hole.

I walked into 2040 Valley Life Sciences Building on the first day of class, sitting near the back and secretly dreading a four-hour lecture. Two hours in, I noticed a girl opening the door and peeking inside with a phone pressed to her ear.

I was starting to get drowsy when someone suddenly tapped my shoulder from the aisle. It was the girl, still on the phone — her eyes were pinned open and her cheeks flushed. “Can you help me with something, please?” she asked. I agreed and followed her to the back of the room, back where no one could see us.

There was a man slumped in a chair in the far corner. His arms were crossed in his lap, and his legs were stretched out underneath the desk. His head was tilted back and leaned against the wall.

“Please, we need to move him to the ground,” she said. I give her a blank look in return. Demonstrating, she grabbed the man’s wrist and pulled. I watched as his shirt drifted up and exposed his arm.

His skin was yellow, and his knuckles were colorless. His eyes were cold and glassy, fixed on the wall. His mouth hung open and he looked stiff, like he had been there for hours — now all that remained was his corpse. I was paralyzed, transfixed by the dead man sitting in my classroom.

“Would you please just help me move him?” my classmate cried frantically. I didn’t know what to do, but something had to be done. I bent down and grabbed the man’s legs; they were eerily stiff, and an overpowering smell hit me, something putrid. I struggled, trying not to vomit, and I let go of his legs.

I realized my classmate did not know he was dead. She had called 911 and was following the instructions. I decided we shouldn’t move him and walked toward the front to tell the professor, trying to keep my cool. He looked at me curiously and paused his lecture mid-sentence.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said as my voice trembled. “There’s someone in the back of the room and … they’re not breathing.” I struggled to think of what else to say as my professor’s eyebrows jumped and my classmate gasped. Before the professor could respond, three officers barged through the door.

The police rushed up the stairs. The whole class looked back eagerly, but the scene was out of students’ line of sight; the officers and corpse were invisible to the professor and the rest of the class.

Eventually, an officer stood in the aisle, his purple-gloved fists pressed firmly on his hips and his legs spread in a superhero pose, as if to protect the scene. The professor took note and asked if we needed to take a break. “We need to wait for the sergeant; it might be an extended break,” the officer replied.

Tentatively, the professor started lecturing again. The transition seemed rough, but the class and professor hadn’t seen what I had. They were unaware of what lurked in the corner, unaware more officers were on the way to ID everyone, unaware we weren’t sitting in a classroom, but rather in a potential crime scene where a lecture happened to be taking place.

I felt trapped, as if I was supposed to forget what I just saw, ignore the police mumbling over my shoulder and into their radios, and just focus on the stage like the rest of my classmates. But what could I do besides sit and wait?

The sergeant came an hour and a half later. He stopped the lecture and started evacuating everyone as officers stood in the hallway with notepads, and he instructed those who “saw the man sleeping in the corner” to speak to a detective. They asked me a couple questions and sent me an email offering information on Tang Center counseling. The professor emailed a class announcement online, thanking students involved and confirming that class would continue as normal, same room, same time.

I dropped the class but visited the room a week later. The chair was still in the corner, forgotten and ignored. The man was 58 years old. He died of natural causes alone in a university auditorium, 20 years younger than the national average.

The man was previously known by UCPD for lodging in other campus buildings. Relative wealth disparity is at record highs, rising steadily for the past half-century in the United States and growing even faster in California. How long will we wait before we realize this is a problem? Homelessness is growing, and currently it seems like our best solution is to say nothing and act like it never happened.

The man who died in VLSB sought shelter in that classroom, and that highlights one of the biggest problems with this situation. Unhoused residents of our community need more safe spaces to sleep, to find shelter. And they need more free, regular access to medical resources. Our community and our city must do better to pay attention to issues surrounding unhoused people so that situations like this do not occur, and so that when a person is dead in a classroom, we do not act like it is no big deal.

Andres Gomez graduated from UC Berkeley in 2019.

JULY 24, 2019