by Zachary Bowin
This fall 38,000 students will head to the UC Berkeley campus to pursue an undergraduate or graduate education. While UC Berkeley prides itself on its diverse population of students who bring to campus their own unique stories, cultures, values and experiences, the university also emphasizes the commonalities that unite all of its students.
Campus staff, faculty and student orientation counselors repeat ad nauseam that students are special — the chosen few who are getting a world-class public education that will open the doors to opportunity and success. Furthermore, this view is engrained in on-campus culture where discussion focuses around internships, graduate schools and potential employers.
An unhealthy competition exists where the goal is not to get a good job, but the best job. I know this because I experienced it as an undergraduate. And even now, in my current Masters in Social Welfare program, and while I am a proud Golden Bear who feels fortunate to have received a great education at Cal, the education I received on the streets as a homeless man shortly after graduating was even more enlightening.
I graduated in December 2010 with my Bachelors of Arts from UC Berkeley. One of the uniting factors I have noticed among Cal students is our ambitious drive and the pressure for success we place on ourselves. This manifests itself in an overpacked schedule where there is scarcely a single minute not spent attending class, studying, writing papers, working, completing an internship or doing research with a professor.
Thus, when I graduated, I was cautiously optimistic that I would be able to obtain a job that would allow me to support myself. This assumption was never questioned by any of the career counselors, major advisors, professors, or other campus staff I talked to, despite the fact that the country was in a major economic recession and they were aware of the family turbulence which left me without a safety net.
However, the problems in the U.S. economy and my lack of family and friends with available space and resources won out, and I became homeless.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of human motivation that looked at the process of self-actualization, which aims for an individual to achieve their highest potential as a human being. Self-actualization can only happen if you are able to address four other core needs. In order of importance, Maslow identified the following core needs.
- Physiological need for food, water, clothing, shelter and sleep.
- Safety needs for health, employment, steady income, personal security, and a safety net in times of crisis.
- Love and belonging, including friendships, family, close relationships and intimacy.
- Self-esteem, meaning both respect from others and self-respect, confidence, achievement, and a sense of being unique.
Maslow’s theory does a good job of providing a framework for those hoping to achieve self-actualization. However, it does not go into detail about the individuals who grapple with physiological or safety needs and the personal impact of the daily struggle to meet those needs.
As a person experiencing homelessness, daily life is made up of the struggle to meet your physiological and safety needs and overcome the obstacles that arise. Small comforts I had taken for granted, such as access to a refrigerator, toilet, shower, and bed, were painful reminders of my current situation and the new obstacles to daily functioning. Locating and obtaining food that didn’t require much preparation, along with filling up and hauling a water bottle, were my primary concerns.
Besides water and nutrients, human beings also require sleep. Not having housing puts you at the mercy of the few — if any — shelters in your area. Even if you’re fortunate enough to find a shelter, there’s a good chance that you will be turned away due to a lack of beds.
Sleeping in a shelter is already tough because of being in close, crowded quarters with people who snore, talk in their sleep, haven’t had access to a shower in weeks or are experiencing serious mental health symptoms. Also, rigid shelter rules mean you must contend with lights on and off at arbitrary times that may totally conflict with your own best hours for sleep.
All these factors make it even more difficult to get a good night’s rest. However, despite these difficulties, if you get a bed in a shelter, it’s almost like winning the lottery compared to sleeping on the streets.
I was turned away multiple times from a shelter in Redwood City, and when I asked shelter employees and police where I should go, they didn’t have an answer. So, I alternated between sleeping in front of the social services building and the police station next to the shelter.
The noise from cars, the streets and freeways made falling and staying asleep difficult. This was in late October when winter was settling in and temperatures were hovering around 20 degrees, so I covered myself in four layers of clothing and the one blanket I could carry in my backpack.
The cold temperature didn’t just make things uncomfortable, but also potentially deadly. I was lucky enough to be placed in housing in mid-November. However, many are not so fortunate. Every year, many homeless individuals freeze to death on Bay Area streets.
Eventually, I became a client for a wrap-around social service agency, which placed me into housing, helped me establish an income and provided medical and mental health services. As part of my recovery plan, and as a solution to my lack of immediate housing, the organization connected me to a local transitional housing program that served primarily homeless individuals and parolees.
This was where I met Michael Rowland, one of my best friends still to this day.
My personal story of education and homelessness is unique to my social place and individual circumstances. I grew up in a white, middle-class, suburban family where educational institutions were trusted. My parents took me to the bookstore and talked to my teachers on a weekly basis.
Michael’s experience with education was far different from mine. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade and joined the Hoover Crips, an infamous street gang in South Los Angeles. At 18, he joined the National Guard and proudly served six years. Afterwards, he struggled with alcoholism, health problems and a lack of real opportunity. When his sister, a constant source of love and support, passed away in 2011, it was too much for Michael to handle and he ended up sleeping around Lake Merritt until he got connected to the recovery program.
As I discussed earlier, there is an aura that surrounds UC Berkeley so that when you tell people you go there, they react as if you have the secret key to unlock all the success and knowledge of the world. By contrast, in Michael’s case, they usually react to his experience and informal education with indifference or disrespect.
Howard Gardener, an education professor, questioned popular assumptions about what constitutes knowledge when he developed his theory of multiple intelligences. According to his theory, there are nine types of intelligence: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.
Formal education tends to focus on mainly linguistic and logical-mathematical, while sometimes drawing upon visual-spatial. I excelled at UC Berkeley by mastering skills such as crafting research papers and solving mathematical problem sets, but these talents were of little use to me when I became homeless.
Knowing how to apply for food stamps, finding critical services, and maneuvering my body to maintain a healthy temperature were all skills I had to learn quickly on the streets. I struggled with all of these, while others like Michael had insights and tips I never thought about. I was fortunate enough to not have to endure a full winter on the street, while Michael survived two consecutive years living on the streets near Lake Merritt.
However, a majority of people and educational institutions would be quick to label me as more intelligent than Michael. This demonstrates the need to radically reshape the values of educational institutions so they reflect real-world skills. But even more importantly, I think it is a call to personally re-examine our own views and biases of what makes a person intelligent.
While I have experienced the normal first-day jitters before at UC Berkeley, this time they will be different. Because this time around, I will bring with me the hardened reality of someone who has slept on the street, stayed in shelters, and navigated the complicated social service provider network. These experiences made me critical of educational institutions and the underlying privilege of their knowledge. However, as I prepare to re-enter both school and the workforce, I know that if I ever feel alone or need to find inspiration, my friend Michael is one phone call away, ready to relay wisdom or inspire me with tales from his reading class, job as a security guard, or role as transitional house manager.
Michael Rowland and I both appreciate and acknowledge that our current positions in life are due to the opportunities we’ve been given. But, millions of Americans, including those we see at the Suitcase Clinic week after week, aren’t able to access these resources.
The pressures and obstacles of homelessness make it a daily struggle simply to survive. I try and help clients to meet these needs as a Housing/Employment Specialist at the Suitcase Clinic. My hope is that these struggles are only temporary and that they’re on their way to experiencing the world beyond the confines of housing instability and physical survival.