Try to think of all the ways in which you live your life in private. In how you can select what you want to be published from the privacy of a room of your own. Or an enclosed, lockable bathroom. Or a fenced-in back garden. You can spend a day on the street and “go home” when you begin to feel the film of dirt upon your skin. When I started at UC Berkeley, I had no sense of that privacy. In fact, I forgot about it. I learned about UC Berkeley in the bright of the public.
I ate outside. I drank outside. I did everything outside. I spent hours sampling in Trader Joe’s when I had nowhere else to be. I showered in a large open room of women, where it felt as if we were all inspecting each other’s humanity. I brushed my teeth in the dark North Berkeley streets while biking to work at 5 a.m., and I probably spat out in your driveway. It was all sickeningly public, but I felt as if that publicness distorted my ability to control the way I presented myself. I was most paranoid about the way my change of lifestyle could affect my image. I was worried people would know, would see me differently, and if it showed on my face.
The van cost $2,000 — less than the average monthly rent in Berkeley. That car became mine and my former partner’s home for three semesters. While I lived in it, I was often paranoid. On our way down to school, we were pulled over by two police officers on different nights, both promptly informed us that what we were doing was illegal. But they were always shocked and then friendly when they saw two wealthy looking teenagers stumbling out of a darkened van full of books. When he heard my New Zealand accent, one officer recommended me the best breakfast spot in Bodega Bay. But I came to discover that this charm wasn’t airtight. After a UC police officer pushed me onto the concrete during a mix up during “Free Speech Week,” I worried that I could get deported for not being able to afford a home at the university I had worked hard to get into.
We figured out pretty quickly where to park. Industrial areas, down near the Berkeley Marina (until we read about Berkeley using vehicle eviction as a tactic to move families out of the area), or inconveniently far into the hills. We would lock my bike on a streetlight far enough away from the van, so it didn’t look suspicious. We left before the light and entered after everyone was asleep. Even the meager amount of light from my phone was visible from outside, so bedtime scrolling was not permitted. We frequently listened to the dance of domestic abuse and drug abuse outside near our heads, while we were trying to sleep. And naturally, my lifestyle took its toll on my grades. I stopped being present. In class, I was more worried about looking homeless than understanding the literature I had traveled to this city to study.
Never before had I relied on campus facilities in a way that I was cognizant of. Now, faced with a lack of hot water in the winter, for example, I was ashamed to ask for the help I needed. And when I did — embarrassingly reaching out to the ASUC — I was often ignored. The worst was arriving on campus to find I was one of the students selected for verification on my financial aid, meaning I didn’t have any money for an extra two weeks compared to other students. Without that money, I couldn’t access the Recreational Sports Facility where the showers were. I couldn’t afford to access the 24 Hour Fitness locker room, let alone go through the dehumanizing process of creating a “fitness plan” with an instructor, so they could figure out why someone in stockings and a dress was in their gym.
Two weeks went by. I’d wake up and look up articles about women who go long periods of time without showering to see whether or not they survived. No results. On the 15th day, I went to the financial aid office and tried to explain why I just wanted to be able to use the gym, I told her I was homeless, so could she please expedite the process, woman-to-woman, human-to-human, please? She seemed annoyed, a bit disgusted. “You have to wait your turn like everyone else,” she told me.
I cried on the strip of grass outside Sproul Hall. But in a small way, I was thankful. I was still an anonymous unit of the UC Berkeley bureaucracy, not processed any faster than the rest, not special and therefore not identifiably “homeless.” Looking back, I’m appalled at how little the financial aid office tried to accomodate me.
And then wildfire season hit. When smoke was rolling in over the San Pablo Bay, I would bike to school with my flimsy filter, watching students protest about classes not being canceled because it was dangerous to be outdoors. I thought I was going to die. Everything fell through that week. I stopped eating as much to compensate for the apartment I found. An abrupt end to a slow, humiliating existence.
A hefty proportion of UC Berkeley students have to make a choice when they arrive: food or housing? A recent UC Berkeley-commissioned survey found that 10 percent of students have experienced homelessness while enrolled. When I arrived, I chose food, thinking it more pertinent to my immediate survival. Now that I have an “inside” to return to, I worry about how to organize and perfect the external qualities of my private world. I’m more anxious than I was then. Now I have things to lose.
But sometimes I see students falling asleep in class, students who seem distant, somehow, and I wonder if they’re obsessing over that RSF shower like I would have been. Because what characterized most of my “van experience” was paranoia surrounding my image, it’s difficult to imagine that the campus could help my case by deconstructing an entire social system that castigates homelessness. Homelessness is still considered by the administration, faculty and students alike to be an issue that is external to campus life — something you see when you step out of Sproul Plaza and onto Telegraph Avenue. But we have campus data that validates our existence, so something as simple as normalizing the status of 10 percent of our population through art and media as well as at orientation could maybe stop, for instance, the stares of my fellow students as I washed out my portable coffee filter in the bathroom sink. Because those stares impacted not only my day, but my grades, my life.