by Samantha Lew
It is a chilly Monday night in Berkeley, and the sun is just beginning to meander beneath the horizon. In front of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, there is already a group of young adults, some carrying instruments, one wearing a dress shirt, and another with textbooks and a backpack, waiting to be let in.
Upstairs, music is playing, an eclectic mix of anything from reggae to electronic dance music, and freshly cooked dinner, complete with smoothies and organic salads, is laid out buffet style. Some people are sitting down, eating and talking to one another, while others choose to sleep in the corners of the large room.
At one table, people are bent over, scribbling away, writing and sharing poetry, insights, and life musings at a writing workshop. Almost everyone there, from clients to volunteers, is under 25 years old. Suitcase Clinic gatherings are built on the principle of peer-to-peer outreach as a more effective way to serve homeless youth.
At 7:30 p.m. that same Monday night, a similar scene unfolds a few blocks away at the Dwight Way Women’s Shelter, a 33-bed shelter that allows women to reserve a bed for 30 days. Inside the brightly lit shelter, women, children and volunteers chat together in an intimate setting, where tables and chairs are set up in the middle of the room between rows of beds. It is a time when the women can get their nails done, get a massage and obtain health supplies. The drop-in clinic is always filled to the brim with laughter and intimate conversations.
On Fridays, or as Suitcase Clinic calls them, “Fun Fridays,” the shelter space is transformed into a venue for wellness-centered activities including journal-making, zumba sessions and self-defense lessons.
The following night, the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley is bustling with people. In the upstairs area of the large auditorium, there is a flurry of activity. There is haircutting, hair washing, foot washing and people in line for basic necessities, such as hygiene essentials and clothing.
On the bottom floor, people sit and eat, some alone and some together, while others gather around a TV where a movie blares above the din of the room. There is a discussion session where people share personal stories, discuss current events, and engage in ways to end homelessness.
These are scenes from the three multi-service, drop-in clinics that the Suitcase Clinic runs each week: Youth Clinic, Women’s Clinic and General Clinic. Structured around the principles of public health, social welfare, community activism and empathy, the Suitcase Clinic is a student-run clinic that offers free health and social services to underserved populations in Berkeley, most of whom are homeless.
All three clinics provide health services in some capacity, whether it is massage therapy, acupuncture, vaccinations, health education, optometry, osteopathic manipulative medicine or all of the above.
In addition, there are student volunteers that help connect individuals with housing and employment opportunities, legal aid, and other community resources.
Founded in 1989, the Suitcase Clinic began with a group of UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program students who began dispensing medical aid at the Berkeley Flea Market to homeless and low-income individuals just out of their suitcases. It soon became apparent that strictly medical services were insufficient in improving the welfare of the homeless populations.
Due to this push for more holistic services, in 1990, the student volunteers secured the First Presbyterian Church for Tuesday nights and that became what is known as our General Clinic today. To this day, volunteers comprise the backbone of the Suitcase Clinic with over 130 UC Berkeley undergraduates and 16 UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program students volunteering regularly each week, along with chiropractors, acupuncturists, masseuses, doctors, optometrists, lawyers and other professionals from a myriad of Bay Area organizations.
The Suitcase Clinic also strives to educate students, promote accessible healthcare, engage in community organization, and support public policy efforts that address homelessness and the needs of the underserved in the local community.
The Suitcase Clinic recently hosted the 7th Annual Poverty and Homelessness Symposium, a day-long conference to educate UC Berkeley students as well as the greater Berkeley community about issues of poverty and homelessness and how to take action.
One in-progress project is Art to Heart, which seeks to change perceptions of homelessness through various mediums of art created by clients. Most recently, Art to Heart launched a PhotoVoice project, where clients were given disposable cameras to take pictures of what they define as home and what they see every day in their communities.
The Suitcase Clinic is in the process of increasing its mental health services and will be putting on an event in early April in People’s Park to distribute health kits and provide a space to foster community, facilitate discussion, and celebrate with one another.
Beyond the many services that the Suitcase Clinic provides, the foundation of the Suitcase Clinic is built on the idea of case working. More than anything, there is an emphasis on building real relationships and having conversations with our clients. The friendships forged between students and clients is seen in the meals shared outside of the clinic, in text messages, e-mails, and phone calls, in going over paperwork to try to get a housing application through, in running around to get a BART ticket so that a woman can get to her job interview.
Case working is the emphasis and value that is put on truly listening and being listened to, and it is in these dialogues of love and understanding that the heart of the Suitcase Clinic lies.
Berkeley Music and Arts Festival
The Suitcase Clinic is hosting the Berkeley Music Festival to cultivate dialogue and build community through music and art! The Suitcase Clinic will also create 240 health kits, which will include a sleeping bag, a first aid kit, a water bottle, and socks, among other essential hygiene supplies like razors and multivitamins. These kits will be distributed on April 11 from 12 to 5 p.m. in People’s Park.
First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley
2407 Dana Street
between Channing & Haste St.
Berkeley, CA 94704-2207
Tuesday 6:15 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Dwight Way Women’s Shelter
2140 Dwight Way
between Fulton & Shattuck St.
Berkeley, CA 94704-2015
Monday 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
2300 Bancroft Way
between Dana & Ellsworth St.
Berkeley, CA 94704-1604
Monday 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
A Street Scribble
by Pierre Pardonmore
What you will probably see when you look at me is someone who loves people and weather, interaction, playing games, conversing, or just a simple hello.
The fact that I’m homeless. A lot of people won’t take the time to sit and have that conversation, interaction or that simple hello. Because I do live on the streets.
Serving food is the same reaction. The food could smell and look amazing but, for the same odd reason, many hungry people will pass it by just because of the stigma of it. Either being served from the street or by someone homeless-looking. I find the results are usually the same.
When did society became so rich and we as a people became so poor?