By Darius Baier
Mike Zint occupies the structure in front of the post office on the corner of Milvia Street and Allston Way. The structure provides shelter for many homeless people. The site also provides a goods donation box, reading material, and often dispenses food to the homeless. Photo Credit: Darius Baier
The homeless are a prominent fixture of downtown Berkeley. A small group camps under the overhang of the parking garage across from Berkeley City College. Panhandlers line Shattuck Avenue asking for spare change and cigarettes, and the homeless have taken over the benches around the dry fountain of Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.
In the first Fall 2015 issue of The BCC Voice, Zalman J. Orloff discussed some of the problems that have led to the housing “crunch” that the Bay Area is experiencing. Housing is becoming harder to find, and rent is on the rise. However, this alone cannot account for the homeless masses of Berkeley who exist in a world that runs parallel to the vibrant world populated by college students.
On a cold November evening, I decided to walk the streets of Berkeley with an eight-pound jug of fresh coffee from Starbucks. I offered hot coffee to all the homeless people I met, and some spoke to me about the origins of their situations and what could be done to lessen their burdens.
When asked, homeless people communicate complex and varied experiences which shed light on a difficult societal problem.
Mike Zint, an activist for the homeless, became homeless when poor health took away his ability to work. D, eighteen years old, said she left home due to family problems. Others, like Liberty, a Marine Corps war veteran, suffer from debilitating PTSD. Liberty only responded in stock military and patriotic phrases. “Oohrah,” he said, and “thank you for your service.” At one point, in his confusion, he began reciting the Rifleman’s Creed:
“This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life.…”
How do you alleviate a problem which stems from so many sources? Berkeley provides shelters, kitchens, job placement assistance and other services for the homeless, but many see these services as inadequate or misguided.
“The homeless need… storage,” Zint said.
He would like to see more services aimed at enabling the homeless to make their own way, rather than people who are not homeless, “house-people,” dictating the paths they should take.
With storage lockers provided to the homeless, downtown Berkeley would look cleaner, something business owners want, and the homeless population would be able to live without their life’s possessions on their backs. Zint also says that storage would lessen the psychological impact of being homeless.
“If we had a spot to put our gear instead of carrying it around all day, most of the homeless in the community would fit in. You wouldn’t be able to tell they were homeless,” said Zint.
They also wouldn’t have to live in fear of losing everything they own, kept in packs and shopping carts.
“They go to the bathroom, they have to worry about losing it… If they go to sleep, they have to worry about losing it, because the cops will take it. That’s the biggest thing,” said Zint, a perspective echoed by D and her partner Willow.
“We still have to take care of the same things that house-people have to take care of,” Zint explains, “except we have more challenges because we have to carry everything we own.”
The challenges the homeless face increase with the cold, wet weather. Willow, said they had a friend who would give them a place to stay if the weather got too bad, but many others don’t have that option. There aren’t enough beds in the shelters, but even if there were, many homeless people would still avoid them. Zint sees shelters as “one step above prison.”
“Not everybody in shelters is entirely clean, and they might have lice or scabies or athlete’s foot… I don’t deal with that,” says Willow, who would rather sleep on the street than accept a bed in the proffered shelters.
Many homeless people do not like shelter life. They find the environment stifling and the house rules oppressive, and they offer an alternative. Zint, D, and Willow would all like to see a place set aside for homeless people to camp.
“They need to let the homeless take care of themselves,” Zint says, “They can provide us a space… [to] put our tents, but no place would want to do that because they’re worried about what that will bring to the neighborhood. Ok, well let’s keep it spread out throughout the city then,” something business leaders don’t want.
Willow acknowledged that tent cities can sometimes become lawless places, but Zint, D, and Willow all agree that this doesn’t have to be the case. They would accept having to register for a spot. They would accept a non-invasive police presence. They just don’t want to live in a prison camp.
With no solution close at hand and winter coming down, many homeless have a hard few months ahead. With this in mind, Zint has some advice for those who live in houses:
“When people walk down the street and see a homeless man, remember, underneath all the dirt and grim, it’s a human being that has feelings. That’s the biggest thing. A smile, a ‘hello,’ a ‘how-ya-doing.’ You don’t need to give them money, just give them respect and a smile… And, if you do want to give them something, give them a cup of coffee. That’s all it takes…and a homeless person’s day is made.”