Public Comment

Commentary: A Glimpse at What It’s Like To Be Homeless

By Glen Kohler
Friday November 17, 2006

Those of us who live on Southside of the UC campus see what being homeless is at first hand, every day. We may walk by and look elsewhere; sometimes we become involved. Always we know that official and private poses of indifference are symptoms of something terribly wrong with our society. 

Last week I dropped down to Telegraph for a late night coffee break at the Cafe Med. Passing People’s Park I saw police cars driving fast with lights and sirens on. Oddly enough, the lights and sirens were shut off and the speed reduced after the cars passed the parkl. The overall impression was that of danger. Tension filled the air, and once I became used to the relative darkness, seemed to infect the sad and anxious faces of people with no place to sleep. People who are now advised that the park extends “from curb to curb", as one Berkeley cop told a group of people on the sidewalk at the upper end of the parkl. 

When they were told they could no longer sleep in the park, law-abiding people with nowhere to go moved their cardboard beds to the sidewalk adjacent to the curb and slept there. In response, the City of Berkeley has declared the curb a “park". (Ain’t semantics grand?) Now these people move their beds and possessions half a block down Hillegass or Benvenue and sleep there. Does anyone involved in this charade of public policy seriously call this progress? 

To shake off the willies from the lights and sirens I decided to see for myself just how “bad” the night-time environment around the park actually is. I took my coffee to go, and sat on the steps of the Baptist Seminary on Dwight Way just East of Hillegass and watched the scene unfold. Several times UC and Berkeley police cars came barreling toward me on Bowditch (my position was right in front of them), with lights flashing, and once two UC cars put sirens on. Twice a Berkeley black-and-white cruised by me v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, as if to indicate that I was the object of their attention. A UC police car headed West on Haste suddenly accelerated, then dropped back to normal speed at Telegraph.  

It looked like heavy-handed intimidation to me. In the time that I sat there I did not see a single private citizen do anything to warrant so much police activity. 

On my way to the Med, and subsequently to the Baptist Seminary steps, I recognized a woman whom I had met previously in the dumpster at my apartment building. She was literally in the dumpster, looking for food or clothing. On the night of my vigil she was looking very scattered and frantic, traipsing along the park perimeter, asking out loud where her boyfriend might be. She seemed to be either losing it, or on the verge. 

When we spoke at the dumpster I had asked her if she would like to vacuum hallways for some money and she was excited by the idea. Feeling a bond with her, it became intolerable to watch her distress, so I approached and said hello. She registered my presence, but seemed unsure of how to respond. I continued to stand nearby and reminded her about our previous conversation, which she did remember. 

That night her condition was not the same. She said several times that she was thirsty. Really, really thirsty—not for alcohol, for water. (If you live on the street you can’t go to the kitchen for a glass of water.) She kept bending down and rummaging through a collection of bags and boxes that held her clothing and other possessions. She was flinging things around with such abandon that it was hard to tell what she meant to do, and I recalled that dehydration causes mental confusion. But I think that fatigue, dehydration, and anxiety were all influencing her behavior. 

Her clothes and bedding were filthy. I knew at that time—just after midnight—there was little risk of outrage if I let her wash her clothes in the communal laundry room, so I asked her if she would like to do that. I thought she might also want to grab a shower, and figured I could throw together a meal. Eyeing her collection, it was obvious that washing bedding was as necessary as the rest, a big enough chore to made me feel skittery about having started this conversation. But it felt craven to offer assistance and then walk away. Good intentions notwithstanding, the tone of this project was not genteel. She tended to shout when she spoke and moved in the oddest way. It seemed unlikely that her decorum in the building would meet Emily Post standards. But the raw reality of this person that I knew, even slightly, lost, broke, dirty, in despair, and ignored by all, temporarily overrode my fine sensibilities. 

The first thing to do was move her possessions out of the parkl. It was now half-past midnight and cops were everywhere. After daybreak she could put them back, but now they had to be moved. The young woman spasmodically tried to segregate items to be washed and began to drag the cardboard, sleeping bag and blankets a legal distance from the parkl. I rolled up the bedding and put it in the box with the clothes. It made a real mountain. The bottom of the box had something gooey on it, but in the interest of time I decided to ignore it. The lady was all over the place, fiddling with bags, throwing a collection of shoes around, and complaining that she hadn’t seen her boyfriend all day. Looking like two ragged gypsies, we crossed Dwight and gradually headed South on Hillegass. The cardboard she was carrying fell by the wayside as I struggled to hold together the massive box of clothes and bedding. She finally settled on the sidewalk in front of an apartment building to make a bed between two driveways. I was surprised she didn’t go for concealment, but then it struck me: if she has to do this every day, then fuck it—the fewer steps the better 

While she stooped and flung things around I walked up the block to retrieve the cardboard and several dropped items. When I returned I suggested that it was time to think about getting her clothes into the washer. My prodding made her bristle. She said I could go on, but she could not be rushed. I felt an impulse to walk away, then reflected that dealing with people takes patience in the best of circumstances, and how little I seemed to have. Standing by while she attacked the pile of cardboard and bedding from every angle, I realized that in her present state she was incapable of an organized effort to vacuum hallways: her sheer dogged persistence to keep moving was impressive in its own right. 

The laundry never got done. She was feeling abandoned and alone on this dark night on the street and wanted her boyfriend. She asked another homeless woman who was walking up and down Hillegass if she had a cell phone so she could call him (at that time he carried their phone) so I offered mine, which she eagerly accepted and used. It turned out that her man had taken a fall from a skateboard (these people are in their early twenties) and was being attended to by an EMT somewhere on Bancroft. She was going to him. All else could wait. 

Walking slowly home to space, light, heat, water and food, I reflected that none of the six or eight people I talked to that night was in a position to change their circumstances. One man asked me if he could do some work—he overheard me talking to the woman—and I put him off. But I will have to find him again and get to know him to decide if I can work with him.  

By the way, workers comp insurers make it near-impossible for a business to pay for temporary casual labor. To hire the homeless you have to write up a receipt for, say, second-hand plumbing parts, and pay in cash. Such a transaction is technically illegal. And yes, the State of California and the IRS would insist that it not take place at all. Thus, the official machinery prevents citizens from helping the homeless by making such efforts unfeasible, even while it denies them its own intervention in their fate. 

The sing-song “spare change?” rhetoric of the easy-going days is gone. Today people on the street look you right in the eye and say in all seriousness: “If you can give me some money, I really need it.” The ones I have met lately are not pushy or obnoxious; they state a hard and obvious fact that should not be ignored. 


Glen Kohler lives in Berkeley’s South Campus area.