Homelessness panel: ‘There’s no place for people to go’

Eve Ahmed, from the city of Berkeley's Homeless Outreach Team, talked about her work during a panel on homelessness at the Berkeley Public Library over the weekend. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Eve Ahmed, from the city of Berkeley’s Homeless Outreach Team, talked about her work during a panel on homelessness at the Berkeley Public Library over the weekend. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Eve Ahmed starts her shift each day at the free community breakfast in North Berkeley at the Dorothy Day House.

“It’s a way for everyone in the city who is homeless to connect with me,” she told a crowded room at the Berkeley Public Library on Saturday. “I work by myself and I treat people the way I want to be treated.”

Ahmed has been an outreach worker for the city of Berkeley since 1993. When she started, she was part of a team of 12. Of that group, she’s the only one left.

Ahmed was among five people on a library panel Saturday that was designed to “dispel stereotypes, demystify homelessness, and lay the groundwork for greater public understanding and involvement.” The discussion, sponsored by the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library, was organized by the library’s Homeless Task Force, which formed last year.

Joining Ahmed were Gwen Austin from Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS); Sam Davis, professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley; Joseph Cuff, who lived on the streets for five years in Berkeley but is now housed; and Julie Winkelstein, a former librarian who has studied youth homelessness and social justice.

About 100 people crowded into the library’s community room to listen to their stories. (Two others who were slated to join the panel were not able to attend.)

Outside the library, pedestrians quickly pass an area being used by a homeless woman to set up her belongings. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Outside the library, pedestrians quickly pass an area being used by a homeless woman to set up her belongings. Photo: Emilie Raguso

All of the speakers were in agreement about the need for more affordable housing, and the critical role getting people housing can play in helping them begin to address other challenges in their lives.

Davis said research has found that building housing and getting chronically homeless people into it, as a first step, ends up saving so much money in services that the housing pays for itself.

“Housing means housing, not shelters,” he said. “Shelters are not the ultimate solution.”

He said it would, however, take political will and an effort to “overcome neighborhood resistance” to build the housing that’s so sorely lacking. He said projects with 30-40 units tend to be the right size to work.

“We need to get the money together to do this,” he told the crowd.

And Davis said that money is out there. Alameda County spends $50 million to $60 million each year “buying services” from more than 200 local agencies. He suggested switching to a “master contract” system and directing much more money toward rent and housing.

"We need to get the money together to do this," said Sam Davis, regarding building more housing for people who are without.
“We need to get the money together to do this,” said Sam Davis, regarding building more housing for people who are without.

Panelists talked about the importance of seeing those who are on the street as individuals, and remembering the trauma that led to them being unhoused in the first place, and is likely part of their daily lives without shelter.

Winkelstein said one of the first steps in understanding homelessness is being careful about the language used to discuss it. The terms “the homeless” and “the mentally ill,” she said, are too homogenous and judgmental, and should be avoided.

“I use the phrase ‘experiencing homelessness’ because that’s what homelessness is about,” she said. “It doesn’t define a person.”

Some others on the panel tried to adjust their words accordingly, but stumbled Saturday.

Austin — who wears multiple hats at BOSS, working in education and development related to social justice, racial inequality and community building — pushed back.

“It should be that, but it’s not today,” she said. “What we’re seeing more of is more permanent. And we don’t have the sort of the structure in our society to deal with that properly.”

Said Ahmed: “There’s no place for people to go. We have shelters, but the shelters are filled up.”

One issue is that many landlords, Ahmed added, don’t want to rent to people who are homeless. She pointed out one woman in the room, seated a few rows away from the panelists, who bucks that trend by having a more inclusive philosophy with her rentals. The landlord got a round of applause from the crowd as she shook her head and smiled, embarrassed at the recognition.

Gwen Austin, BOSS. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Gwen Austin, of BOSS, said homelessness has become a “more permanent” state for too many. Photo: Emilie Raguso

An increasing number of people in Berkeley are identified as homeless. A count performed in January 2015 found an estimated 834 people on the streets, a steep increase from the prior count in 2009. And the estimated population as of October 2015 was 1,200 people.

The primary factors leading to homelessness, said Winkelstein, are a lack of money and a lack of affordable housing, unsurprisingly. For youth, many end up on the streets after they have been kicked out — sometimes due to sexual orientation — or leave because of abuse, she said.

Once you’re homeless, said Davis, it’s a downward spiral for your health and sense of worth.

“You have to be tough to be experiencing homelessness,” said Winkelstein. “Being hungry, being ill, not having enough money for public transportation, all of these have an effect.”

Panelists also discussed the important role relationship building plays in helping people get off the streets. Ahmed said she goes back again and again, and doesn’t mind when people tell her “no.”

“I consider it a process,” she said. “It takes anywhere from a day to two years to five years for a client to be linked with services.”

After the daily community breakfast, Ahmed said she heads out to handle calls for service around the city. She is often dispatched to check on people lying on the sidewalk in public areas. It’s not uncommon for her to be sent to City Hall for those calls.

The first thing she does is make sure the person is still breathing.

Read more stories about homelessness in Berkeley.

Ahmed said Solano Avenue and The Elmwood neighborhood are quick to call in if there’s a person on the street: “These are the squeaky wheels, they want the person taken care of right away…. We are overburdened in the downtown area and, as many of you know, under the Gilman overpass.”

She also takes people who need help to programs and services, providing transportation in her car. One of those programs is The Hub, the city’s one-stop homelessness services center, which was launched in January in part to try to determine who in Berkeley has the highest need.

Berkeley has quite a number of services for people living on the street or with other related needs. The city itself gives about $3 million to social service agencies each year, and those agencies also do their own fundraising and grant writing to bring in additional resources.

But Ahmed said all that help won’t make a difference unless those who are unsheltered are determined to make a change.

“We as a community have to come together to embrace people and to try to empower people, not telling them what to do but to see where they’re at in the process, to see where you can aid them,” she said. “To uplift them to make better choices.”

Joseph Cuff said he's become a bug in Mayor Tom Bates' ear since he got off the streets. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Joseph Cuff said he’s become a bug in Mayor Tom Bates’ ear since he got off the streets. Photo: Emilie Raguso

One of the people who’s been housed through the city’s help is Cuff. He said he ended up on the streets due to a dysfunctional relationship. He stayed outside for five years.

“Streets wasn’t that bad,” he recalled, saying he always knew where to get food and how to get around. “But I didn’t know how to hook up with the systems.”

Cuff said he was 61 when he discovered the Senior Center, and a worker there — named Marcus — helped him get housed. That was two years ago. Cuff teared up as he thought back to those times.

“Marcus, he’s a good dude,” Cuff said. “He got me a place.”

Cuff said he still goes out on the streets, walking with his dog and trying to help others get connected with outreach workers who might help them.

“I know I can’t help everybody, so I look for ones I think really need the help, and I try to connect them with people like Eve … [and others], and I know they will take care of them,” he said.

A 17-year-old had planned to be on the panel but could not get off work. Austin, who knows her, shared some of the girl’s story. In 2013, she moved to Berkeley on her own from out of state, leaving her family behind. She enrolled at Berkeley High through the McKinney-Vento Act, and graduated earlier this year.

“On her own without anything, she got all the resources that she needed,” Austin said. “She stood in the storm and she stood out. And she wanted to be more than that label was.”

After the panel ended, members of the audience had a short time to ask questions and make comments with the mic before refreshments were served. One speaker spoke movingly about how she briefly became homeless earlier this year due to a “situation with mold in Oakland.” After losing her housing, she said she made it a point to go to the laundromat every day to wash her clothes.

“You have to have dignity behind your situation no matter what,” she said, adding that she believed in a “reach one, teach one” philosophy. “When you fall down, pick yourself up and keep going. You have to keep on being your [own] advocate first.”

A woman who said she became temporarily homeless earlier this year shared some words of advice: "When you fall down, pick yourself up and keep going." Photo: Emilie Raguso
A woman who said she became temporarily homeless earlier this year shared some words of advice: “When you fall down, pick yourself up and keep going.” Photo: Emilie Raguso

A man from the Dorothy Day free breakfast program said he would like to see the city offer services alongside those meals, which isn’t currently the case.

Barbara Brust, co-founder of grassroots nonprofit Consider the Homeless!, questioned why the city is putting so many resources into The Hub, and asked why it isn’t open more hours.

Brust also wanted to know “why the City Council is the way it is,” and said she is making sure to register as many homeless people to vote as she can: “You do not need an address,” she told the crowd.

She wasn’t the only one who said The Hub needs to find a way to be more accessible. Others said The Hub has only gotten 17 people into housing since January, and that it isn’t nearly enough, particularly given all the resources it receives.

A speaker who identified himself as formerly homeless, Cody, said he has a “rather dim view of the homeless services system because that system has accomplished nothing and will continue to accomplish nothing.”

Cody said at least half the conflicts on Shattuck are “largely over basic needs,” such as money for “food, tobacco and housing.” He decried the “poverty pimps” who “run the system,” and said the community needs to “rise up” to demand a new approach. 

For much of the discussion, nearly all the seats were filled in the main library's community room. Photo: Emilie Raguso
For much of the discussion, nearly all the seats were filled in the main library’s community room. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Mike Lee, who is running for mayor of Berkeley — and is also homeless — said it was ironic that Saturday’s panel about homelessness was held at the library, where rules regulate the size of property people are allowed to bring inside.

He said Sunday that the policy was “motivated by the more fortunate not wishing to see stinky homeless people. Those same people refuse to help solve the problem and the media is neglectful in making sure reasonable and rational voices are heard.”

Others noted Saturday that no one who is currently living on the streets was among the panel members.

Mike Zint, part of the Liberty City protest camp that set up in front of Old City Hall last year as the City Council was voting on rules to regulate street behavior, used his turn at the mic to ask what had happened to four truckloads of possessions confiscated from the camp during the protest.

When no answer was forthcoming, he shouted, “You have a policy of silencing the homeless,” as a library security guard moved toward him. He turned over the microphone and indicated he had had his say.

A short time later the event ended and attendees reconvened for casual conversation and refreshments.

In a follow-up to Saturday’s panel, the library will host Berkeley mayoral candidates Sept. 25 for a roundtable talk on homelessness at Northbrae Community Church from 4-6 p.m. 

Op-ed: It’s not rocket science to solve homelessness (08.12.16)
To curtail camping, Caltrans builds new fence on Gilman (08.05.16)
Homeless advocates say officials are dumping too many prized personal items (08.03.16)
Gilman Street underpass: For many, the poster child of Berkeley homeless camps (06.29.16)
Would a homeless mayor in Berkeley make a difference for the homeless? (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: The fact sheet (06.29.16)
Berkeley mayoral hopefuls weigh in on homelessness (06.29.16)
Photos: Living on the streets of Berkeley (06.29.16)
Berkeley seeks to house those most in need at The Hub (06.29.16)
Berkeley homelessness: A timeline from 1982 to 2016 (06.29.16)
Has it gotten harder to be homeless in Berkeley? (01.02.13)

Read more from the Berkeley Homelessness Project. Support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Homeless Task Force that organized the meeting. The Berkeley Public Library Homeless Task Force is composed of five BPL staff and was formed last year.)

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.