For two weeks John Christian has been sitting in front of the downtown Berkeley BART station on Shattuck Avenue each day, asking for change. And so far, the people of Berkeley have come through.
Christian said he is so impressed with the city’s generosity and tolerance that he has sought out the media to pass along his public message of thanks.
“The people here in Berkeley have been so good to me,” said the 40-year-old Christian. “I’ve panhandled in lots of places, but the people in Berkeley are loving, caring, sharing people.”
Modesto Fernandez is one of the people who stops and chats with Christian on Friday and gives him a McDonald’s gift certificate.
In addition to feeling a moral responsibility toward the homeless, Fernandez is also a Vietnam veteran and the two share their experiences of the war. Fernandez is angry with the lack of respect people show for homeless veterans.
“It really upsets me. I could be where they are,” he said. “If you’ve ever been out there in the field, on the streets and you know what it feels like to walk around in wet socks, you can appreciate dry socks.”
Christian is actively seeking a job as a bus driver and one day hopes to qualify as a BART engineer. For now, he’s content to hold up a felt-penned cardboard sign looking for a little generosity to see him through.
“I feel this is no way to go through life but right now I have no choice,” he said.
In Berkeley, Christian averages $30 to $40 a day in “tips,” which is good considering he only makes about $7 a day in San Francisco. In addition to food and medicine, he uses the money he gains from panhandling to support a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit.
Christian came to the Bay Area two months ago looking for work.
Lifelong bouts with depression and diabetes have made this search difficult and as a result, he’s been staying at the City Team Ministries’ homeless shelter in Oakland.
Everyday he must sign in to receive a bed for the night. If none are available, he simply sleeps underneath a bridge somewhere or tries another shelter in the area.
Christian said police officers in Oakland suggested he panhandle in Berkeley, saying the city was more tolerant of homeless. A person who answered the phone at the Oakland Police Department, however, denied this was their method of eradicating the homeless in their city. She did not give her name.
Christian said he finds Berkeley a pleasant change from his experiences in Oakland where he’s been robbed several times. He’s especially impressed with the police in Berkeley and refers to them as “dignified” in the way they deal with the homeless.
Ethridge Marks, a BART police officer who was in the area on Friday, agrees that the police in Berkeley seem to be more tolerant of the homeless population.
“There’s probably more compassion in the city of Berkeley,” Marks said. “I think it should be the duty of every police officer to be compassionate to the people they serve. Just because a person is homeless doesn’t mean you shouldn’t serve them.”
Christian was born in Connecticut in 1960 and joined the Army in 1978. Eventually, he was honorably discharged because of his flat feet, which hindered his ability to run. Over the years, he’s worked as a charter bus and taxi driver and at one point owned his own parcel delivery business before making his way out to the West Coast.
He went on disability in 1991 due to back problems and depression, something he’s dealt with all his life. He was scared on the first night he spent in a homeless shelter in 1996. He was concerned about sharing such little space with so many strangers and the possibility of diseases spreading. But he’s learned to adjust because there are “certain things in life that you have to do.”
Christian easily totes around his worldly possessions in a medium-sized piece of luggage. In it he carries various legal documents, a pillow and two of the three shirts he owns. He wears his only pair of pants along with a pair of 20-year-old cross country ski boots on his feet. At 297 pounds, he says it’s hard to find clothes that fit him at thrift stores.
His curly, black hair is peppered with gray, which he says has increased over the last three years due to stress.
“My age is coming on very fast right now,” he said.
However, Christian fears earthquakes more than he fears death and lives a simple life, needing little more than the generosity of Berkeley’s community.
“Homeless vet needs your help,” he calls out to the passing crowd adding, “That’s my favorite line.”