No place to lay their heads

June 30, 2016 12:04 AM

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By Bonnie Oviatt

Jerry is polite and gregarious. His clothes are a little dirty but no more so than those of someone who has been doing physical labor all day. Jerry’s story is not different from those of many other people. What is different is where he lives.

Jerry used to live in Alameda. He worked in the restaurant industry and as a bartender. When Jerry got laid off, the rising rents in Alameda—and all around the Bay Area—were too much for him. He became homeless.

There are no homeless shelters in Alameda. The only shelter in Alameda is the Midway Shelter, which only provides services for abused women and children. It is a good program and helps many people, but it couldn’t help Jerry. He found himself on the other side of the tube. Jerry now lives in Oakland under an underpass just by the entrance to the Oakland/Alameda tube, aka the Webster Street Tube.

“Most of the time [the shelters are] full. Once you’re there, you have to stay inside. They can’t find housing for you although they say they can.”

Jerry has been living there in a tent for more than a year. He says, “When you think about becoming homeless for the first time, it’s really scary. The reality hasn’t been as bad as I imagined.”

There are a core group of individuals that comprise the encampment by the tube. They have formed a community.

Jerry explained that they are camped on land that belongs to the state rather than to the city of Oakland. About every two weeks, Caltrans and the Highway Patrol come and force them to take all of their stuff and move. Caltrans then cleans up the area and moves on. As soon as they are gone, the camp is re-established in the same place it was before.

Jerry proudly tells me that in their little encampment, no one uses hard drugs. He says, “That’s a big deal because there’s no fighting or stealing. It’s cool that we have the group we have.” There are about five or six individuals or couples. Some of them have dogs.

Oakland’s CityTeam International offers homeless men in the city a bed, a change of clothes, and two meals for $5 per night in their dormitory space at 722 Washington St. But the stay comes with a set of rules.

Jerry says he feels safe there. When he first became homeless, he stayed at the St. Mary’s Winter Shelter. Unfortunately, that shelter is only open from December through April. Although Jerry said the shelter was all right, he added that it was run by former addicts who could be “real hardasses,” and that there were a lot of really crazy people in the shelter.

Jerry receives general assistance. He has been trying to get disability. His legs and feet were swelling up when he first started living on the streets, but he doesn’t think he will be approved because his condition has since improved. He does have goals. He proudly announced that he had just updated his resume and was looking for a job as a bartender.

Jerry would like to move back to Alameda someday. He says it is a really nice area. He could not stay in Alameda because the Alameda Police Department won’t allow homeless people to camp there. He shared that there were homeless people in Alameda that camped out at night in some of the undeveloped more wild areas, but “had to be out by the crack of dawn and walk through the parks all day to avoid being hassled by the cops.” He wound up by saying “Alameda just wants to get rid of any type of homelessness or any kind of anything that makes them look bad.”

Despite repeated calls to Officer Horvath of the Alameda Police Department to inquire about their policy on homelessness, we could do no better than play phone tag. One officer who would not give his name told me that the policy seemed to be to just keep people moving along and that moving people from one place to another didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything. Something needed to change.

Alameda may not have homeless shelters or seem to have many homeless at all, but that does not mean there are not programs to help the homeless and people in need. The Alameda Food Bank is a great resource. In order to be a client at the Alameda Food Bank, people must be residents of the city of Alameda and be “low income.” They are supposed to have both photo ID and some sort of proof that they live in Alameda—like a utility bill.

One police officer said the policy seemed to be to just keep people moving along and that moving people from one place to another didn’t accomplish anything.

Cindy Houts, the director of the Alameda Food Bank, explains that unfortunately they have to turn people away if they obviously don’t live in the city, but they try to work with people. Not all homeless have photo ID, so they do their best to help the people they can. They assume that everyone who walks through the door needs food.

Houts explained that they are very lucky in Alameda. Trader Joe’s, Lucky, Target and the three Safeway stores on the island all give generously to the food bank. “Trader Joe’s donations are daily. They’re also very generous with protein, so like they give us steaks, pork chops and all that.” There is also a program called Backyard Growers. People with fruit trees or vegetable gardens in Alameda donate their extra produce to the food bank.

The food bank offers a wide variety of nutritious food. One client who wanted to be known as “Shari from Alameda,” who describes herself as a senior with pride, striding and gliding is not homeless but is retired and on a fixed income. She says, “Oakland has good programs but Alameda has a wider variety of items and seems to give you a little more. The food in Oakland is more like ‘salvage food.’ The food here is better.” She was very impressed with the amount of food she receives.

Alameda seems to have a mixed attitude. The residents can be very generous, but they don’t want to find a homeless person camped in front of their homes or in their parks. Many of the people who are homeless in Alameda live in their vehicles.

A neighbor of mine, who wished to remain anonymous, reported that there has been a homeless man who parks on his street about four or five nights a week. When he gets up early, he can see him sleeping there. The homeless man never caused any problems so my neighbor never reported him. Near the ferry building on the west side of town there used to be vans and RVs that would park there all the time. The city has since closed off the area to traffic and extended the public shoreline. Some of the vehicles have disappeared while some just moved down the road a little.

Oakland and Berkeley are larger cities. Their homeless populations are more visible. In Berkeley, you can see people with all of their possessions sitting on park benches or under trees. In many cases, they don’t look much different from any other residents of the city.

I interviewed a woman named Bertha Williams. She is a youthful African American woman, aware of absolutely everything that is going on around he. She has been living on the streets ever since a death in her family forced her out of her home. Her stuff is spread out across a bench in a park on MLK St.

When asked why she did not make use of the shelters in Berkeley, Williams had several reasons. She said, “Most of the time they’re full. Once you’re there, you have to stay inside. They can’t find housing for you although they say they can. There’s no difference between being there and being here, except that there you’re inside at night.” She explains that even if you’re in at night, the shelters kick you out in the mornings and you still have nowhere to go. She also explained that when you do go to a shelter you have to put up with crazies, druggies and sick people.

Williams believes that funding is being given to special interest groups and not enough is being done to help people who have done nothing wrong.

Williams says that she has been on the list for affordable housing in both Berkeley and Oakland for over 14 years. Yet she has still not found some sort of program to help her. Making matters more difficult, Williams is blind. She is not completely blind because she saw me when I approached her, but it is obvious she has severe vision problems.

MLK Jr. Civic Center Park sits across from the Veterans Memorial Building. That building houses multiple service agencies. Some of the programs there include Shelter Plus Care and Options. The latter is a treatment program for addicts. Williams does not qualify for any of these programs and is upset because, as a daughter of a soldier who gave his life at Pearl Harbor, she is not even allowed to sleep on the stairs of the building. She believes that funding is being given to special interest groups and not enough is being done to help people who have done nothing wrong. She commented that many of the people receiving help across the street brought their problems on themselves unlike her, who was born with her disability.

In a time when resources are so scarce and people are in such need, it shouldn’t be surprising that people are pointing fingers at one another. Williams is right. There are more programs for specific groups, including those for people suffering from HIV and drug addiction.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having more programs to help people who really need it. We should not, however, forget those people who do not fall into these specialized categories. When I went to the website for Shelter Plus Care in Berkeley, I found their requirements for getting into the program included being homeless and disabled. I am not clear why Williams didn’t qualify. They accept people with both mental and physical issues. They assign housing to the people most in need. They say that priority is given to people with life threatening illnesses, multiple hospitalizations or frequent contact with law enforcement.

Thus, I understand people’s frustration and anger. Still, now is not the time to lash out at others that may be in just as bad shape as anyone else. Now is a time to come together and seek solutions.

Williams is a very determined woman. She told me she would never give up on her goals, so I asked her what they were.

She replied, “Well, first I want to get me a house, and then we’ll see after that.”

One of the most positive attitudes I have ever encountered belongs to another homeless woman in Berkeley. She goes by the name of Gigz, and she is incredibly friendly. I met her walking down MLK in Berkeley. She was standing and talking to a friend in front of the police station. I saw that her friend was pulling some sort of cart. I approached them respectfully, explained about the article I was writing and asked if they would be willing to talk to me. The first woman inquired what I would be willing to pay. When I responded that I couldn’t, she made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with me and that neither would anyone else.

That was when her friend Gigz spoke up. She had a very soft, slightly high pitched voice. She said that she would love to talk to me. She thought it was important for people to know what was going on.

Right now Gigz is staying in a church program just off University Ave. But the church will soon close down until next winter. She will be forced to find another place to go.

We walked down the street to Trader Joe’s. I thought I would buy her some water because it was a hot day. As we walked she ran into several other people that she knew and called out to them by name. She asked about each of them and whether or not they wanted water. When we arrived at the store, she bought water not only for herself, but for me too. When I tried to pay her, she declined the money.

After that we walked to a park and sat under a tree where she set out a rainbow pennant for us to sit on. She was originally from the Hayward area. She has been living in Berkeley for about the last year. She does make use of shelter programs. Right now she is staying in a church program just off University Avenue. She says that she feels blessed to be there. She bathes in holy water and loves going to services at the church. The church will soon close down until next winter. She will be forced to find another place to go.

She is grateful to have a place to stay right now. She feels isolated on the streets. She is both drawn to people and scared at the same time. Just the other night, a man asked her for help. She wanted to help him but thought he was trying to trick her into something. She told him she had to go back to the shelter. He followed her all the way there and went through the intake process to get a bed. Then, suddenly, he left. She doesn’t blame the shelter.

When I asked her what it was like in the shelter, she did admit that it was scary sometimes. “There are a lot of users and people try to steal your stuff. I feel like if they need it that bad, it’s all right. I’ll get more stuff for myself.” She also explained, “You can’t take all of your stuff to a shelter with you. You are only given a small amount of storage space. You have to stash your stuff before going to a shelter and, of course, some of it gets stolen.”

“[There was] this horrible place in Richmond—which wasn’t a shelter. It was one of those religious freak places where they scream at you ‘Jesus is great and you’re an asshole.’”

“Shelters may not be perfect places but at least they give me a place to stay. The church has to kick us out during the day. They have to hold services.“ Sometimes she is still tired and wants to sleep in the park. It makes her feel about her. She knows that the clothes she wears are not always appropriate. She asks, “What can I do? I can’t help it.”

She describes her style as Garbage Pail Kids, from the 80s. There is nothing wrong with what she is wearing and she does not stand out in Berkeley at all. Often times, people don’t think about the things they are saying, and if they’re talking about someone they think is homeless, they don’t even consider them a human being.

When the shelter she’s at now closes, she will go to a crisis home she has stayed at in the past. A therapist that she trusts and admires works there. The only problem is that you can only stay there for two weeks. Hopefully, she will get the help and support she needs.

More than anything, Gigz would like to find a way she can help others in her community. She thinks she might want to go into journalism someday, so she can work on things she is passionate about.

Phil Booth lives in Oakland on Piedmont Avenue. Literally, on Piedmont Avenue. He is homeless. When his mother passed away in 2003, she had left him some money, but through bad investments and partying it was all gone by 2009. Phil is an aging rock and roller. He loves to tell jokes and talk about music. He does odd jobs for people in the neighborhood and is generally liked by everyone.

The first night he was homeless, he returned to his old elementary school in Pinole. He stayed there for a couple of nights sleeping behind a dumpster. After that he had a librarian look up homeless shelters for him. He found “this horrible place in Richmond—which wasn’t a shelter. It was one of those religious freak places where you have to listen. They scream at you ‘Jesus is great and you’re an asshole.’” He also remembers that clients had to participate in bible reading after being woken up at five in the morning. Participation was mandatory if he wanted to stay.

Oakland's CityTeam not only offers a place to stay, they also offer programs to change their clients’ lives, such as substance abuse rehabilitation. Each bed in the shelter comes with a single crate to store the occupants’ belongings.

Oakland’s CityTeam not only offers a place to stay, they also offer programs to change their clients’ lives, such as substance abuse rehabilitation. But each bed in the shelter comes with a single, small crate to store all the occupants’ belongings.

He left and went to Brookside Shelter in San Pablo. That is where he met his beautiful girlfriend Lisa, who was also homeless at the time. Phil says, “Lisa is the only good thing to ever come out of a homeless shelter.”

From 2009 to the present Phil estimates that he has been homeless for a little over two years. He has lived with his girlfriend Lisa and stayed in shelters. Right now he is out on the street again after Lisa kicked him out about 9 weeks ago. He admits that it was because “He didn’t have his shit together.”

He had been staying behind one professional office building. He has had to move on because they hired a private security guard. He thinks it was because of him. Even though he was very careful not to leave any garbage behind where he slept, occasionally someone would come in to the office early and catch him before he could leave.

He has since moved to another location. The police have questioned him there, but they said it was all right as long as no one complained.

Phil has made friends in the area and learned how to get by. He doesn’t seem like he is starving. He has found safe places to stash his stuff.

But just because he doesn’t look unhealthy doesn’t mean he is safe or doing well.

When I asked him about whether he felt safe or not, he told me a story about a friend of his. His friend has been robbed twice in the last three weeks. Both times, a man stuck a gun to his head and demanded his money. He took all he had—$18 and his credit card.

Even though he doesn’t feel safe, he is not willing to go to a shelter. His experiences there have been so bad that he is unwilling to try the ones in Oakland. He warns that, “some of the staff running shelters are former homeless and drug addicts. They lack intelligence and compassion. They only want a paycheck. There are also a lot of people with mental issues. Then again there are some people who have just slipped a few cogs and can’t afford rent.”

In an ideal world, there would be no need for shelters. In a better world, all shelters would be safe, free, and provide enough storage space to keep everyone’s belongings.

Phil is currently working on getting disability until he can collect social security. He has a painful condition in his left knee and finds it hard to do physical labor.

All of the people I have met while researching this article have goals and dreams for the future. Whether their goals are simple or hard to achieve, they are all human beings. They deserve to feel safe. They deserve to have a place to live and pursue what makes them happy.

Three out of these four people choose not to use shelters. Their reasons are often completely valid.

In an ideal world, there would be no need for shelters. In a better world, all shelters would be safe, free, and provide enough storage space to keep everyone’s belongings. They would also allow pets, so people wouldn’t have to choose between their best friends—in some cases, family—and having a place to stay.

Many shelters and organizations that run shelters are doing a good job. Non profits like CityTeam and BOSS are trying to help as many people as they can. They have limited resources and may not be able to provide everything everyone would want in a shelter, but both provide safe places to sleep for as many people as possible.

When I toured the CityTeam shelter in Oakland last week, I was impressed. They provide a bed to sleep in, a crate to put each occupants belongings in, which will be locked up to avoid theft, a nutritious dinner and a good breakfast. They also provide a change of clothing so people don’t have to sleep in dirty clothes. When I asked Mike from CityTeam if the shelter was safe, he responded that there had been less than a handful of violent incidents in the two years he had been there.

CityTeam also provides other services to their clients. They try to help them find jobs and housing as well as maintain employment. They offer programs to help people get off drugs and become more productive.

BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency) also offers a wide variety of programs. They provide shelters for the homeless, offer a place to do laundry, provide meals. They also have programs to help people find and maintain housing and employment. Their “wrap around services” try to get at the root of why people are homeless or experiencing problems.

Both of these agencies are striving to help people. Of course, sometimes they won’t live up to people’s expectations. Even if conditions at shelters were ideal not everyone would take advantage of them. Some people don’t like their rules. Some people have conditions that make staying in shelters difficult. Some people are barred from shelters due to substance abuse issues.

Not being able to help everyone should not keep organizations from trying to help as many as they can.

And just because organizations are doing their best, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t keep trying to improve.

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