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Checking Out of Berkeley's Hilton to the Homeless

By Ted Friedman
Tuesday August 16, 2011 - 01:51:00 PM

I was in People's Park Saturday, researching a piece on informal Berkeley street communities, when a teenager named Hilton told me her aunt had driven her all the way to Berkeley from Southern California to "dump" her in People's Park.

Okay, so Berkeley is a Hilton to Homeless street tramps and other vagabonds. (Planet: Jul 20, 2011). But what if you were dumped in People's Park--lobby to the Hilton--and wanted to work your way out. How good is Berkeley at that? 

She was crying and in need of shoes and a coat for the evening. Not to mention a bed. She landed in the middle of a park community of good-guys and a free meal (barbecued chicken) so good even Hate-Man was eating it, and he's a picky eater. 

Between tears, Hilton told of her troubled past and of the aunt with three kids, who dumped her. 

Was she pissed? "Just hurt," she cried. 

That was Saturday. I saw her Sunday and she told me what had happened to her since she was dumped in the park. She was still shaken from being dumped Saturday, but had made friends, one of whom shared his sleeping site with her. Even though grateful for having landed in People's Park, she told of having a drunk "get in my face." 

We agreed to pursue together, Monday, her options for improving her situation. When I met up with her Monday she said she was having trouble keeping food down and thought she was losing weight. At 5' 8'' and 140 pounds, blonde, and youthfully healthy, she still seemed a teenager although she said she was actually 26. 

She showed me a picture from her wallet of a beautiful blonde five-year-old girl she said was her daughter, who was living with her ex-husband's grandparents in Southern California. She declined to be photographed. 

After a breakfast at the Caffe Mediterraneum in which she could only nibble at some rye-toast and drink a Coke, we headed for a drop-in homeless outreach center with women's showers in Berkeley's Veteran's Memorial Building on Center. Hilton said she had not showered in three days and that her clothes were "all clingy." 

On the way, Hilton said that she had been to a women's shelter, earlier, at Dwight and Shattuck, but that all the beds for the night were booked. Boona Cheema, Director of BO.S.S. (Building Our Self-Sufficiency)—a drug rehabilitation and homeless outreach 

program—had directed us to a drop-in center to apply for an array of services and programs. 

Hilton said the park was "great," and that if she had to be dumped, she was glad it was there; but she didn't want to stay there. She had first seen the park six months ago when her aunt, who often drove to Willits, California in Mendocino, County had stopped off at the Park to "score some weed." 

"I've been clean and sober, six months," she said, but someone gave me some champagne last night and I threw up. "Maybe that's why I'm not feeling so good." 

We did not immediately find our way into the drop-in center, which is in the rear of the veteran's building near a courtyard. Once inside we saw a small men's shelter, women's showers and a cluster of open offices; a few clients milled about. After introducing, Hilton to a gracious man at what seemed to be a sign-in desk, I talked to a client, who was close to finding an apartment through something called the "shelter plus program." 

Hilton was then interviewed by an "intake person," while I talked to the good-natured soon-to-be-renter, who said he was 56, and had a mental disability. "Don't we all," I observed. 

There were four signs tacked about: (1) "Expect to be accepted for who you are;" (2) "In a world where you can be anything, be yourself" (now there's an idea!); (3) "if you never stick your neck out, you'll never get your head above the crowd;" this showed some stately giraffes, and (4) "attitude is everything." Like the giraffes, I felt uplifted. 

Hilton emerged from her interview, saying she had answered a lot of questions, but had not learned what would become of it. She said that she was told she would need $600 dollars to apply for housing assistance, and that she didn't think the intake person liked her. Although she does not resemble Paris Hilton, Hilton does look upscale, with her flowing blonde hair, stylish sweater, and skirt. I explained that she needed the $600 to prove she could pay a rental deposit. 

We were given the 800 number for the women's shelter and directed to a community health clinic where Hilton could be treated for her stomach problems, but she later soured on going there, even though I explained it was free. 

On the way back to Telegraph and the Park, we stopped off at the Berkeley Public Library, where Hilton scored a library card (now she's a Berkeleyan) and I offered to show her around the library, even though I no longer know where everything is because of a remodeling project in progress. Hilton said they offer library maps, and I apologized for treating her "like a complete idiot"—with my hapless library tour. 

Hilton gave me more information about herself on the way back to Telegraph. She said she'd been a stay-at-home-mom for nine years; that her mother was a "crack-head whore", now jailed; that her ex-husband was an electrician, employed and stable. 

Her father had beaten her and she was made a ward of the court and had had a good foster home until she became older. "Foster parents, like them young, she said, and easy to handle." 

Hilton wound up with her aunt after helping the aunt escape her abusive uncle. The aunt earned a good living by street-scamming for change, using her attractive kids as props. When Hilton interceded on behalf of the kids, her aunt dumped her. 

The aunt often "commuted" to Mendocino County where she would pool her resources with Mendocino "hippies" to rent space in campgrounds. Hilton accompanied her aunt. 

"That was how I was living." she said. 

"On our last camping trip, we were invaded by guys with guns blazing. One dude was killed. The kids and I fled into the woods." 

Hilton hopes to be a counselor to troubled youth in resident programs, but only has an eleventh-grade education. 

Before we parted at the Med and Hilton headed for the park she's trying to run away from, we agreed to stay in touch. 


Ted Friedman's education was in Journalism, but he did take a 2-hour course in Social Work so he could graduate in four years.