You are walking down to Peet’s for a coffee when you realize you will need to literally step over someone to get where you are going. Who are you at that moment? Do you consider yourself a compassionate person but one who can no longer muster the patience needed to navigate a city overrun with houselessness? How do you feel? Guilty that you have things much better? Angry that you feel unsafe in your own city? Wondering why these people won’t just go somewhere else?
You are not alone. I am Ian Cordova Morales, the lead advocate of Where Do We Go? Berkeley, an organization dedicated to advocacy for people experiencing houselessness. I spend a fair amount of time fielding complaints from Berkeley citizens about the people we work with and the work that we do. I refuse to read comment sections in local articles about houselessness because of the angry things people write about my clients and myself from the safety of a keyboard (though this article may be no different).
I am here today with good news and bad news about the state of houselessness in our city. Bad news first, of course: What we are doing is not working, and it is never going to work. One percent of Berkeley’s population is presently experiencing houselessness, an astounding 57% of whom are Black (compared to the 9% who make up the general population). And that is just who could be found for the yearly census.
Ready for the good news? You, the people of Berkeley, have the power to change this. Berkeley’s citizens have had a major influence on houselessness policy in the past few years. Local politicians who are eager to please often mirror our opinions and feelings on these matters. While I am not blaming anyone for our lack of success, I strongly believe our next step should be to change our approach to solutions.
Whenever a houseless encampment becomes too large and visible, people often begin to submit complaints to the City Council and City Manager’s Office. Many of these complaints are not without their merits, garbage and fires being the two main issues we see. What happens next, however, is where things get a little counterproductive.
The City Manager’s Office and Public Works oversee all encampment removal. This involves destroying all property on-site that can not be carried out by the unhoused people living there. To be fair, the city does send an outreach team to connect with the residents prior to eviction. The only problem is that in order to connect people to services, you must first earn their trust. The rapidity of evictions does not allow for enough time to establish a connection, so most people on Berkeley’s streets associate the Berkeley Street Outreach team with trouble, the pale white horse before their homes’ destruction.
The aftermath of the “sweep” of the encampment is where the proof of our failures lie. Imagine you are a person who has lost everything and now must live outside, possibly forever. Your relationship with your possessions, your social circle and even your own body is continuously upheaved. According to a HuffPost piece by the Center for Community Change Action, becoming houseless is one of Americans’ top fears. Imagine having to go through it twice, three times or more? Somebody taking everything you own and throwing it into a trash compactor right in front of you is an act of violence: There is no way around that.
The cliché line of “mental illness is a source of houselessness” tends to circulate the conversation about houselessness. But something we often miss is that the continuous trauma of life on the streets is a major source of mental illness. In my line of work, I have had to watch many clients lose their footing and spiral into long-term mental health crises and substance misuse. Each arrest, act of violence, sexual assault, theft, harassment from passersby and “sweep” takes its toll on their psyche.
I simply describe my job and organization like this: “We just try to make sure people don’t die until real help arrives.” If it ever arrives, of course. Momentarily putting pricier long-term solutions aside, even short-term solutions with a “harm reduction” approach can make all the difference. We need to focus on making the things we don’t like about houselessness go away rather than focusing on making the individuals themselves go away.
Noncity funded organizations such as the Berkeley Outreach Coalition, composed of several Berkeley nonprofit organizations such as Berkeley Need, Consider The Homeless!, Suitcase Clinic, Copwatch and Berkeley Free Clinic, show how much can be done with very little. Sanctioned encampments could offer a great short-term solution while people wait to enter Permanent Supportive Housing. These encampments could address the issues including fire and garbage easily with dumpsters and affordable extinguishing systems. We have seen genuine success in Oakland’s 77th Avenue Rangers encampment — so why not here?
In simpler terms, we must change society’s current mindset that housing equals capital while poverty equals criminality. We need more collaboration between local governments, small volunteer organizations and every compassionate citizen to ensure this marginalized group gets the support it needs — to make sure it feels that revolutionary love I know sits in the heart of our city.