On a chilly April afternoon around 4 p.m., a few dozen people lined up in People’s Park. They were there to pick up their one reliable meal for the day: dinner from East Bay Food Not Bombs.
The menu was black beans and rice, collard greens, kale, roast beets, potatoes and chopped fruit salad. The food had been prepared by volunteers at St. John’s Presbyterian Church on College Avenue and brought over to the park in Southside Berkeley.
“There’s almost always beans and rice,” said Timothy Busby, a homeless man (and Berkeleyside contributor) who has been serving food during the pandemic. “The rest depends.”
Berkeley’s shelter-in-place order has not only shuttered most of the city’s businesses and forced people to remain at home as much as possible, but it has changed life for those who consider People’s Park a central part of their lives. Around 35 to 40 people frequent the park daily and about 10 to 15 are now spending the night in their tents, even though overnight camping is not permitted. UC Berkeley is officially enforcing its rules but spends less effort enforcing them than before the pandemic, according to Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman and vice-chancellor.
Donations of clothes and food used to be dropped off regularly at the park, but have dwindled since the pandemic began. Most student groups, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations have stopped or greatly reduced service to park denizens. Much of Telegraph Avenue, long a source of food and change, is shuttered.
“A lot of folks rely on flying a sign,” said Lisa Teague, referring to cardboard signs people hold up asking for food, money or shelter. “The students are gone, and the restaurants are closed, so that really puts a pinch on people’s subsistence.”
So meals from Food Not Bombs have become one of the reliable touchstones of the week for those who frequent the park. There is other food available, some brought on a recent Sunday by JC Orton’s Night on the Streets Catholic Worker. Ari Neulight, the UC Berkeley social worker who counsels the park residents daily, is about to start bringing sandwiches a few times a week, said Teague. Consider the Homeless delivers food four times a week to the park: soup twice a week and grocery bags with two days of food twice a week. Nearby, the Dorothy Day House at the Veteran’s Memorial on Center Street serves breakfast and lunch, including gourmet boxes prepared by local restaurants. McGee Avenue Baptist Church in South Berkeley also serves lunch.
The availability of food helps those hanging out in the park, since not eating can contribute to tensions, said Teague, who lives across the street. She was once homeless herself and is now a leader in the People’s Park Committee, which pushes UC Berkeley and Berkeley for improved conditions for the park and those frequenting it.
“People are more cranky when they’re hungry,” said Teague. “There’s more strife when there’s fewer resources. You’re hungry and you’re bored, so what do you do? You make a smartass remark, and then you don’t back down,” she said. “Things are more likely to turn into conflict.”
Crime can be an issue in the park and is one of the reasons UC Berkeley is planning to build student and community housing on the site. Cal officials consider the current situation to be untenable. The university recently unveiled drawings of the project that include one 16-story tower on Haste Street that tapers down to 11 stories. It can hold 1,200 students. There will also be a building that can hold 125 formerly homeless individuals in supportive housing.
The People’s Park Committee and others oppose the project because they believe it will erase the 51-year history of the park and will remove a much-needed green space on Berkeley’s Southside. Cal officials point out that Walter Hood, a world-famous landscape architect, is including a half-acre glade in the center of buildings as well as a grove of trees with gardens underneath.
Erick Morales considers himself a resident of People’s Park even though he doesn’t sleep there. He lives out of his car, but has been coming to the park daily for the last three years. “This is home,” he said.
With a car, Morales has both mobility and security. He can travel further to venues elsewhere around Berkeley still offering meals, and can use his vehicle as a lockbox to safeguard his possessions. Morales points out that his situation is unique, as most of the park’s residents sleep rough, either in the park or elsewhere, and do not share his same level of relative affluence.
“These people need to get fed every single day, at least twice,” said Morales. “You can see, everyone is looking at each other, ‘Where’s the food?’”
The attitude toward the danger of the coronavirus has evolved as the shelter-in-place order has been extended. Initially, park residents were quite casual, said Teague. At first people were not social distancing and were sharing joints, she said.
“There’s a prevailing belief among a lot of unhoused folks that inferior hygiene just toughens up your immune system,” she said.
Part of Neulight’s job is to remind people in the park to keep six feet away from one another, according to Ruben Lizardo, the director of local and community relations for Cal.
Park denizens are distrustful of both private and government systems and are not particularly inclined to believe their messages, said Teague. Some of their questions include whether it is any safer to be indoors than out? Are local shelters properly sanitized? Is it even possible to practice social distancing in them? Once checked in, can you ever check out? Or are you locked in for the duration of the pandemic?
“You can see, everyone is looking at each other, ‘Where’s the food?’” — People’s Park resident Erick Morales
“There’s a lot of confusion and distress about the response of the powers that be,” said Teague.
But one comforting regularity is East Bay Foods Not Bombs, the local chapter of an international grassroots network working to feed the hungry and protest war and globalization. Food Not Bombs recovers foods that would otherwise be discarded and combines ingredients into free vegan and vegetarian meals. Since its founding in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980, the all-volunteer organization has expanded to more than 1,000 cities in 65 countries.
East Bay Food Not Bombs has been serving meals in People’s Park since 1989, the year the chapter was founded. The organization serves meals five days a week, supposedly at 3 p.m, but with the complications posed by the coronavirus it is often closer to 4 p.m.
Like many volunteer-run services, Food Not Bombs lost much of its crew at the beginning of the shelter-in-place order. That means fewer people to ensure food is picked up, brought to the kitchen at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, cleaned, cooked, packaged, delivered and served.
“Normally we have three to four people in the kitchen cooking, but right now [Wednesdays] it’s only me and Robb,” said Busby, a FNB volunteer who spent five and a half years sleeping on the street, but now lives out of a friend’s van. He currently volunteers once a week with the group.
Fortunately, Food Not Bombs is still receiving plenty of donated produce. “We get a lot from grocery stores and farmers markets and they’ve been open,” said Robb, a volunteer cook. Meals are mostly vegan, though there are occasional donations of animal products, such as individually packaged hard-boiled eggs.
Before the pandemic, Food Not Bombs served meals cafeteria-style, spooning rice and beans out of catering trays and onto paper plates. After COVID-19 struck Berkeley, volunteers still served out of trays, but with a plastic sneeze guard installed. Currently, Food Not Bombs serves individually boxed meals.
“And man, that’s the way to go,” said Busby. “It’s more sanitary but it’s also more convenient. People zip through the line.”
It does take slightly longer to box the food up at the kitchen, but the time is more than made up for in serving. People get food faster and there are fewer arguments. Everyone is getting the same amount of the exact same thing.
Busby has also noticed that the consistent portions have made it easier to use up donated produce in the kitchen and to convince people of the benefits of “less desirable” foods. In other words, everyone is getting vegetables. And, when served all in one box, everyone seems to eat them too.
There have been some adjustments. In the old system of open catering trays, it was easy for people to see what the food was before being served. In the new system, curious diners sometimes want to first open the boxes to see what’s inside before taking one. Busby has been firm on this. “If you open it, it’s yours, otherwise we throw it away.”
Each box contains a hearty portion of healthy foods. “We don’t specialize in presentation,” said Robb. “We load up. That thing is probably three pounds of food.”
That April day, Robb and Busby had prepared around 50 boxes of food and served around 35. Post-cleanup, they planned to distribute most of the remainder to other encampments around the city, but they would leave a few boxes behind at People’s Park, meaning that even latecomers who missed the service would not go hungry that night.