Any story on those experiencing homelessness will be incomplete. There are as many narratives on the subject as there are lives affected by it. The following story is likewise incomplete, though not for lack of possible interviewees. There are nearly 40% more homeless people living in Alameda County now than there were two years ago. And the most recent city homeless count shows that 972 Berkeley residents are either in shelters or on the streets.
Those living on the streets or in shelters are not hard to find. But to be homeless in any city involves a great deal more than just not having a roof overhead. It means having one’s insecurity on public display. One man described it as paranoia. “You have to assume there’s a law against everything you do,” he said. People with such limited privacy were understandably cautious of letting a reporter point a phone at them and press “record.”
Food was different. Nearly everyone had stories on food which they did not mind setting down on record. The stories they shared about what it takes to get fed in Berkeley were not necessarily the ones most often written about.
Berkeley has no shortage of charitable institutions offering daily meals to the homeless . “Nobody is gonna let you starve out here,” as one man said. On a Monday, for example, one can get an early meal at the Christ Church on Cedar Street from the Dorothy Day House , then, walk over to McGee Avenue Baptist Churchfor a noon meal, and finally head to People’s Park for a 3 p.m. meal with Food Not Bombs. Evening meals are a bit trickier, requiring that one keep track of the day and its location, and whether it is, say, the second or fourth Saturday of the month or the third Sunday.
A person could construct a daily migration around available services, but no one interviewed for this story employed such a strategy. For some, charitable organizations could be disappointing on account of poor quality — “on par with a high-school cafeteria or a prison” as one man put it — or else too socially intimidating and aggravating for being more frenzy than meal. For most of the people interviewed, it’s just easier to panhandle outside a restaurant, set up a camp stove by the BART tracks, hustle for spare change and leftovers, or apply for food stamps than to balance with the schedules, menus and environments of the charity meal services.
And while many expressed gratitude and admiration for the abundance of goodwill available to them, nearly all preferred some degree of autonomy and self-agency over how, when and what they put in their bodies. Even if that agency comes only from deciding who to ask for help.
For a community accustomed to being somewhat invisible, it seemed most appropriate to let those interviewed tell their own story, in their own words. As one individual put it, “You can’t know it unless you live it.”
People’s Park: Joe is something of a newcomer to the park and considers it as more of a place to hang out and rest rather than a full-time home. He is in his early 30s.
“You’re well taken care of here. They got resources and… I don’t know there’s just something about the place. They call it the vortex. I’ve left. I’ve been to Arcata and Santa Cruz and I’ve tried Florida. I’ve been around America. Ain’t nowhere like Berkeley, man.
“It’s not that you’re provided for, but… nobody is gonna let you starve out here. I don’t want to ask somebody for shit. I try not to use the free food if I got money. I try to put in work, because like they say, man, ‘Don’t work don’t eat.’ Even says that in the Bible.
“A lot of people that come here, they’re just…. It’s an easy hustle, you know? It’s always free food. You can just sit here and if you’re hungry you can be like, ‘Hey can I have your leftovers?’ and you try enough times and somebody’s gonna give you their food.
“I sat out here before like depressed and starving but still too proud to hold my head up and ask somebody for food. I’m just sitting here with my head down. I look up, and there’s this guy handing me like French toast in a box. I was like, ‘Thank you, man.’ I had my headphones in. I put it down, I put my head back down, and when I look back up I see his fist in my face and he had ‘LOVE’ tattooed on his knuckles and he was trying to give me knuckles and I thought that was pretty awesome, man. And just shit like that happens all the time, man. You see a lot of manifestation out here.
“Manifestation is what I like to call it. When you need something, it just comes to you. As long as you need something important. Something that you actually need, you’ll get it. I don’t know if that’s manifestation or blessings. I guess it’s all the same.”
People’s Park: Sasquatch has lived in the park on and off since he was 17.
“Every time I have nothing, I come back here. This is what this park is for. This park is home to the homeless and to people who say, ‘Oh I hate the homeless,’ that makes no sense. That’s what this park was built for. It was built for people who have nobody. Who have nobody to go to. Nowhere to roam to. Unfortunately, it’s turned into a… Some people got their own issues and addictions and flaws and stuff, but from what I understand about this park it’s supposed to be for anybody. You got a belly button, you’re home here, you know. And that’s what I always loved about it.
“You can’t starve here. Every Saturday, we call it ‘Fat Saturday’ ‘cause every Saturday a bunch of groups come out and feed us and bring us socks.”
You mean Food Not Bombs?
“No, other groups, not Food Not Bombs. I don’t eat their stuff. I don’t like it because they grab it out of garbage cans and it’s rotten and there’s no meat in it.
“I hustle to get my own goddamn money so I can go buy a Bongo Burger once in awhile. And then I split it with my dog. I know this Korean place that sells a whole pile of short ribs for $3.50. I get a pile of short ribs, some teriyaki, and share it with my dog, Nikita. She’s the princess of the park, by the way. He gestures towards a small Pomeranian. The dog barks and lunges at a pedestrian.
“She thinks she’s a pit bull.”
UC Berkeley: Chimerical Combos identifies himself by the username he employs in online chess forums. He is a man in his mid-40s, with long hair and a beard.
“You were asking about food? That’s one of the big mythological aspects. One of the misunderstandings of homeless folks. This isn’t India. Nobody’s starving. All you have to do is take a look around. Not only are people not starving but there are many people who are overweight, some wildly so. There’s 10, 15 organizations who are competing with each other to play ‘here comes the airplane’ and feed folks. So the last thing anyone needs to worry about who has nowhere to live is feeding themselves.
“This’ll sound insane to you but I’ve actually been on a diet the last two months. I’ve gained 20 pounds since I’ve had nowhere to live the last couple years. Feeding yourself, not a problem. The only people who are underweight are people who are seriously, seriously mentally ill or people who have hardcore drug addictions so just don’t care about eating.
“When I had somewhere to live I ate mostly organic vegetarian food. So certainly the quality is not what you’re going to get if you have money to feed yourself. The only place that I would go for free food is the Food Not Bombs folks, and that’s vegetarian and some of it’s organic. That’s decent quality I would say. Occasionally I would go over to the Hare Krishna temple. Also vegetarian, decent quality. Sometimes delicious. Sometimes on par with going to an Indian restaurant. The other places, I don’t go to. From what I hear it’s roughly on par with, you know, a high-school cafeteria or a prison. Not super quality, but you know… if you’re hungry.”
You mean shelters?
“I mean churches.”
What’s your strategy for providing for yourself?
“I tend to keep to myself in general. About three or four months ago I lost patience with going out to People’s Park to eat with the Food Not Bombs folks. Though the food is fairly good, there are a lot of people around there who have had very hard times in their lives. They don’t have a lot of education. They’re not exactly the most emotionally mature people on earth. They have a lot of extra challenges. So there’s a lot of screaming and yelling. There are adults who can’t wait in line. Like, a little child is able to wait in line, and they’re not able to. There’s just a lot of craziness over there. I lost patience with that about three or four months ago and so I decided that it’s no longer worth it and you can also get $200 worth of food stamps through the city. Sorry, not the city. Through Alameda County. So I’ve been going to the dollar store and Walgreens and eating like that. Which is certainly a much lower quality but it’s much less aggravating.
There’s a handful of people over there I like to spend time with but mostly I just like to keep to myself. So I may go back over to People’s Park to enjoy the delicious, vegetarian, hot food — which I miss, in a way — but it’s gonna take a while for me to forget how aggravating it is out there.”
Center Street: Wally is a young traveler. He is not comfortable being photographed but is proud of his sign and skateboard.
“You just hustle to get what you want. Panhandle. Hang out by the best restaurants and ask people to bring what you want.”
What are the best restaurants?
“Right here, man. Top Dog and Purple Kow. This whole strip is good but those two are my favorite. [He points to a cardboard sign he’d made, asking for food from the two named restaurants]
“That’s just what works. People don’t always want to give money.”
First They Came for the Homeless encampment: Adam is part of First They Came for the Homeless (FTCFTH), a tent city of activists who have moved around Berkeley for the past few years on what they dubbed a “Poor Tour.” For the past four months, the tents have been located at the Oakland/Berkeley border, next to the BART tracks and the ‘Here There’ sculpture.
“We had one of these before and it was stolen [puts his hand on the camp stove]. And I guess we got another one. This one is bolted to the table. Our equipment was mostly donations but a little bit of it was purchased ourselves. We buy all our propane now. I’m not saying anyone is using this thing because I’m not sure that would be legal. But if anyone was using it to heat water or cook food occasionally, it would probably be contributing to their nutrition.
“I’m not actually sure if it’s legal to cook outside in Berkeley. I’m not sure if it’s legal under any conditions. I’m just saying generally speaking as human beings, we certainly have the right to cook. And we’re certainly doing it in a safe way. So, again whether or not anyone happens to be cooking here, I believe they have an ethical right to.
“I work. I have a job, construction, Moving dirt, mainly. So I can pay for most of my own food. But there’s plenty of donations that come and we centralize them and you can basically take what you want. That way everyone here gets fed. And there’s always food around and there’s a pretty good diversity of it.
“Any kind of law against cooking in public is deeply unfair. It is necessary to regulate it and say you know, for example, ‘no open fires.’ But a gas stove, you know, which is necessary to people’s survival, you really can’t argue with that on a basis of human rights.”
FTCFTH encampment: Sam was curious when he heard Adam discussing stoves and came over to join the conversation
“If I may? It makes eating more expensive for us. Noticeably more expensive for us to eat without a kitchen. And everybody will recognize that. It’s not much of a stove. And it’s a safe thing. It’s very little, you know what I’m saying? Everything we have is very little. We don’t have a lot of anything.
“We’ve been given the tents, and we keep a really nice clean camp. And we try to work within the city as much as we can. Desperately we would like port-a-lets. Shout out to Sweet Adeline. What a nice and thoughtful person. But she’s taken on more of this than she should have to and we realize that and we go other places.”
What’s the connection to Sweet Adeline?
“They buy our coffee in the morning and we use their bathroom [laughs]. But, you know, why can’t we have a port-a-let? Because it’s an attractive nuisance? Well, then put it at the bus stop.”
Is there an actual city law against cooking outside? (There is a law against sleeping on public property at night.)
“If there is, we don’t know about it, nobody’s brought it to our attention, but you have to understand. When you live in that state of paranoia, when you’re not educated in the law, and you have to assume there’s a law against everything you do. That there’s a law against being poor.”
Is there anything you think people should know related to food and homelessness?
“I was really always happy whenever someone gave me their leftovers from Angeline’s [laughs]. But, as far as us eating, it’s tough living in a non-perishable world, you know what I’m saying? Without refrigeration, without electricity. Things need to be eaten quickly. And need to be figured out. It definitely costs a LOT more than it would living with a kitchen.”
Adam: “I got this one. A pound of lentils costs a dollar twenty and it’s four meals. But you need to cook it. You need to cook it for like 40 to 45 minutes. You can live on almost nothing in terms of money if you can cook for yourself. If you’re relying on restaurant meals, that’s going to drain your accounts much faster. And if you’re relying on charity, then you won’t have any kind of independence or self-determination.”
Sam: “You can’t even walk out of McDonald’s without spending six bucks. And that’s the cheapest place in town.”
Adam: “There are people who do it. There are people who live on the streets and buy all their meals from restaurants because that’s all they’re allowed to do. And it’s absolutely insane.”
Sam: “And it’s where all their money goes. It’s where all their money goes. But…. yeah, that’s a nice ending [laughs].”
FTCFTH encampment: Crystal is in her early 30s. She was not comfortable with having her photos taken for this story, but shared her story. She relies on faith as a means to getting food.
“I pray and hopefully I get food donations at the tent and then I eat from the tent. But the choices at the tent, sometimes I don’t like the food and then I eat very simply. Like I don’t eat as much as I should.”
What do you do when it’s not the kind of food you like?
“I ask around for food from the neighboring businesses and strangers on the street. Because I can’t eat that. Just anywhere, just stand on the street and ask for help. It doesn’t work well, but you pray, and then God will tell you who to ask for food, and then you ask for food from that person.
“I used to be a world-class chef, so I’ve been eating very simply, but I’d like a better meal. So, STEAK and BEER, you know, right? [laughs] But it’s hard to get, it’s expensive! Somebody got me a hamburger, which is nice. There are strangers and kind people who donate.”