Houseless in Berkeley, Part I: On the street

photo of a homeless encampment
David McAllister /Senior Staff

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How do you react when you pass by a cluster of tents or a person in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk? Do you cross the street to avoid them? Loop your arm through a friend’s? Quicken your pace? Walking by the tent community in the block opposite my building on my way home every day, I used to hold my breath.

As the days went by, though, one of the people living there started to say hello to me, and I began to greet him in return. Eventually, I decided to stop to talk; that day, I learned his name. The next time I said hello on my way back from class, I ended up having an hour-long conversation with one of the people he lived next to about astral projection and climate change.

In retrospect, I wasn’t as afraid of the houseless as I was of the unknown. Back home in Singapore, homelessness is, more or less, invisible; while it does exist, it is extremely rare to see anyone sleeping on the street. Living here for the first time, I didn’t know enough about the houseless to know how to feel and therefore expected the worst.

There is certainly a stigma attached to homelessness that stems from a fundamental lack of understanding. These days, I regularly stop to chat with my neighbors in the tent community on the next block; I see people actively move to avoid us when they walk by and think about how I used to do the same.

It is so easy to see people who are houseless one-dimensionally. Yet, it only takes a conversation or two to realize that they are people above all, with challenges to overcome, people they love and goals they aspire to. Understanding the hurdles they face brings us one step closer to empathy and one step away from the demonization that is so prevalent in the current narrative.

Perhaps among the most significant is the issue of accessibility. Houseless people often find it challenging to access the services we take for granted and the systems that are supposed to help them out of poverty.

People’s Park advocate and volunteer Lisa Teague explained challenges with online applications for welfare and assistance.

“Forms have to be filled out online, but a lot of folks don’t have those skills,” Teague said. She also pointed out that people who are houseless — even if they do have smartphones — often do not have enough mobile data to use and rely on campus’s CalVisitor Wi-Fi, which she (perhaps quite rightly) described as “wack.”

“Even if they do get (stimulus checks); if they get a paper check, they don’t have ID, and then they have to pay a big fee at a check-cashing place, and all of these things make (the system) so hard to navigate,” she added.

The sheer shortage of housing also presents a steep challenge. Campus social worker Ari Neulight described the “broader system challenges around the affordability of housing, the lack of housing (and) the lack of affordable housing,” adding that housing or housing vouchers can sometimes be provided to only 200 or 300 people out of as many as 12,000 applicants. According to both Teague and Neulight, long waiting lists often mean that people in truly dire circumstances are best able to obtain housing the fastest. Although this makes logical sense, there is certainly something disquieting about the idea that only those who have undergone the “worst” trauma deserve a roof over their heads.

People who are houseless also struggle due to their poor relationship with the agencies meant to help them. Sometimes, they simply do not know people who are able to offer assistance. Neulight pointed out the uniqueness of his role and that most people who are houseless in most areas simply do not have someone to serve as a point of contact.

“There’s not really county (or) city-funded social workers or outreach workers that are in specific places outside with folks on a daily level,” Neulight said. He believes having more of such social workers would not only help houseless communities through complex and inaccessible administrative processes but also create the opportunity to build a bond between them and somebody able to render assistance.

They may also have a poor relationship with the government and certain nonprofits. “For long-term homeless folks, it’s just a whole catalog of PTSD,” Teague explained. “You’re constantly trying to evade or confound these regulations that make it harder for you to exist, so there’s a lot of, ‘I don’t want to deal with them. I would rather sit on the corner and hustle BART cards or whatever than apply for benefits.’ Those are the people who slip through the cracks.”

One of the people in the tent community in the block opposite my street, Jonathan Kaine, strongly identified with this.

“The doctor put something in my file ’cause I was so frustrated and angry,” Kaine said about his experience at a nonprofit. “It seems to be taboo to be frustrated and angry.”

Furthermore, substance abuse both results from and contributes to the predicament the houseless community faces.

“The substance use problem among houseless folks is enormous,” Teague said. This can have dire consequences. Some suffer from psychosis, which can be frightening and add to the stigma against the houseless community; this, however, might be the least of all its evils. Teague noted that two People’s Park community members recently died of  drug overdose. The first was a well-loved man whom they called Uncle Mike. The second passed away without anyone learning their name.

It is easy to oversimplify the issue of substance abuse among people who are houseless and say that those who are addicted to some kind of drug should either quit or be made to do so by the organizations that offer them assistance.

“But you have to consider the population, and you have to consider the fact that every day really sucks,” Teague said. As with all other aspects of houselessness, substance abuse is best considered with empathy and kindness. Instead of people with addictions for the predicaments they have found themselves in, it might be worth asking questions about solving root problems driving them to addiction and ways to keep them safe until they are able to leave narcotics behind. Teague, and others seeking to help the houseless community, works on harm reduction, and focuses on making human connections with the people she reaches out to so that they feel supported and less alone.

Houselessness in Berkeley is multifaceted and deep-seated. The homeless community faces a series of challenges that are invisible to us every day. They are human above all, and they deserve all the love and empathy the campus community has to give. Yet, so many of us regularly choose to see the worst in them or to see right through them. Instead of walking quickly on by with eyes averted, perhaps we should all sometimes stop to say hello.

Contact Xuan Lee at [email protected]