Public Comment

Commentary: America’s Greatest Problem

By Randall Busang
Tuesday January 22, 2008

The Berkeley old Adult School complex on lower University Avenue (directly across from All Star Donuts, 1255 University, Berkeley 94702) sits empty, idle, deteriorating, just as it did when I arrived in Berkeley three years ago. I’ve had countless conversations with Berkeley’s homeless, frequently centering on how the old unused Adult School would make an ideal shelter complex. As it surely would. The building has miles of space for dormitories, numerous lavatories and several full-service kitchens. 

Last year at Thanksgiving I approached social worker J.C. Orton who operates Catholic Charities “Night on the Streets” van, in an effort to learn who could be contacted about the old Adult School.  

Orton promptly said, “It’s been proven, large shelters don’t work,” and hurried away. 

Wake up and smell the coffee, J.C.! 

The kind of thinking that worked in the sixties is hopelessly outdated in post-millenium America, more out of tune with the times than Scarlett’s green print barbecue dress from the set of Gone With the Wind. 

And it is disastrous for Berkeley’s 2,000-plus population of homeless men and boys. There is only one shelter with tolerable conditions in Berkeley, the YEAH shelter for homeless teens at the Lutheran Church of the Cross at 1744 University Ave. 

Homelessness is undesirable, so the old social reform thinking went, and if homelessness is made as disagreeable as possible, the homeless will disappear. A tidy way to justify allocating as little as possible from public monies for services to the homeless. 

Too much of so-called social reform thinking remains based on the underlying fallacy that the poor themselves are to blame for their poverty. 

Thousands of Americans are currently jobless and homeless, the majority through little fault of their own. The United States continues to squander multi-billions—on the space program, for instance, on futile educational and crime-fighting programs and third-world aid packages. 

I came to Berkeley believing in its model programs like the Center for Independent Living. Berkeley was the first town in the United States to have a C.I.L., the first to make pavements and public transportation wheel-chair accessible.  

The Daily Planet has run stories on Berkeley’s outstanding and unique examples of WPA work projects, the Rose Garden for instance. No reason why the old Adult School could not become a town-sized work project with those who would benefit most working make it habitable. The homeless themselves could clean and repair the shelter, collect necessities for bedding, canvas Berkeley’s many restaurants, supermarkets and markets for food to augment government surplus allotment. 

The key to making the shelter complex would be to end the outdated dictate that homeless clients must be turned out in the wee hours of the morning to wander the mean streets, even in the most inclement weather.  

A realistic program allowing for all-day long term stays of several months would give homeless people a real opportunity to contact distant family or work with social agencies to find subsidized housing. Those who receive government checks could contribute a stipend for board. Berkeley’s homeless population, given a real chance to help themselves, could become a model for national reform. 


Channel surfing one night in 2005 I caught Jim Jeffords, now retired as the Independent senator from Vermont on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor.” Asked what he thought was America’s greatest problem, Jeffords immediately replied, “Unemployment.”  

America’s most popular television commentator and best-selling author was taken aback.  

“What?” O’Reilly snapped, trademark glibness momentarily punctured. “Bigger than the war in Iraq—or illegal immigration?” 

Right-on Mr. Jeffords.  

Nobody, much less our politicians, will admit as much, but America is currently is as bad or worse shape than it was during the Great Depression, when breadlines stretched for city blocks, thousands of families went homeless—and hundreds of Oakies and Arkies migrated to the Promised Land formerly known as California.  

The manufacturing industries that created the hundreds of thousands of jobs that made Americans prosperous are long departed—having relocated and reformed as Third World sweatshops. Family farms, especially in the Midwest went under during the eighties and nobody but Willie Nelson gave a damn. Our universities have long since become Big Businesses, staffed by well-paid neo-feminists and other elitists. 


Some of the homeless I suppose, deserve the label “undesirables.” How about the alcoholic Vietnam vets who sprawl nightly on Berkeley pavements, victims of a disgraceful, futile war nobody wanted? They have since been joined by the Gulf War vets.  

Then there are the 20 and 30-something victims of the social and educational “war on boys.” 

You can see these lads in any fair-sized town in the United States always in uniform: sneakers, sweats, baseball cap, cellphone.  

Many are street-level drug dealers, making less than it takes to keep their cells activated, their canine companions fed and themselves high. In homeless “capitals” (Portland, Ore. being the current homeless center for GenX) they are accompanied by their girls and their babies. About five years ago, the ever-elitist New York Times ran a full color feature on these jungfolk and their culture and music in the devastated Midwest, warning the affluent liberal elite readership about their “dangerous” anger and lifestyle.  

Are the disenfranchised “dangerous?” You betcha. 

Like many in the East Bay I suppose, I was shocked when the Siberian tiger Tatiana at the San Francisco Zoo went berserk at Christmastime for the second year in a row and, (on almost the same date) this time killing a young male bystander.  

Surely there is a warning to be taken from this inexplicable holiday tragedy. A quote from Churchill kept running through my head: “Dictators ride about on tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are growing hungry.” 


Randall Busang is a Berkeley resident.