by Caroline Pohl
“When homeless people show up, everyone shuts up.” — Dana Minton, a Suitcase client at General Clinic.
On November 17, Berkeley’s City Council met to vote on newly proposed anti-homeless ordinances, which would include criminalizing the placement of a cart for more than one hour in the same area and forcing homeless individuals to confine their belongings to an area measuring only two feet by two feet.
In return, these laws made empty promises to build more restrooms and showers, as well as provide storage places for homeless persons. Undeniably, these ordinances were purposefully constructed to target Berkeley’s homeless community, and to create a new form of criminalization for this already underrepresented group in government.
It was a typical Tuesday night at General Clinic, as Suitcase Clinic members and SHARE coordinators — Brandon Chen, Jenny Liang, and Vanessa Briseno — prepared for their weekly SHARE discussion with our clients.
General Clinic is a drop-in center where homeless individuals can receive medical, optometry or dental care, talk to a lawyer, pick up hygiene supplies or receive other services such as acupuncture, laundry or footwashing.
This week, however, the SHARE discussion group would be held at the City Council, providing clients with a literal voice in politics and their community. The SHARE coordinators had reserved a place to speak at the meeting if our clients so desired.
Before we left, the conversation at General Clinic gradually drifted towards the unavoidable topic at hand. In reflecting on a previous council meeting on different anti-homeless laws, Dana Minton discussed the positive response met by the activism of 200 homeless individuals.
“Empathy shows,” said Dana. “When the homeless show up, everyone shuts up.”
Rafael Dang, another regular at General Clinic, agreed. Having moved to the United States quite a few years ago, Rafael was concerned about the city of Berkeley infringing on our human rights. “I believe everyone is free to be homeless,” said Rafael.
Christopher Cort, previously a professor at UC Berkeley and another client of General Clinic, summed up the conversation nicely as we started out towards City Hall, declaring that he “opposed everything that makes life harder for the homeless.”
We were a pretty eclectic group as we shuffled along the mile from the First Presbyterian Church, where General Clinic is held on Tuesday nights, all the way down to the Berkeley City Hall on Martin Luther King. It was an interesting scene: the traditional social barriers that seem to exist between the homeless and clients dissipated, and some others on the streets even joined our walk.
We arrived at the old City Hall around 8 p.m., just as the agenda of the City Council shifted towards the topic of anti-homeless laws. The entrance of City Hall was blocked as the meeting had reached capacity, but a few clients and Suitcase members were able to weave their way inside. The rest of our group, both Suitcase clients and volunteers, stood outside in the cold, watching the broadcast of the meeting outside on camera.
The environment inside the council chamber was poignant and powerful. Many homeless individuals, as well as other citizens of Berkeley, had spent the night before the meeting in tents and sleeping bags outside City Hall. The line to voice opinions on the anti-homeless ordinances flooded past the doors, but two of our clients, Rafael and Christopher, were able to speak out.
Following our exchange about political pragmatism and the purpose of government from the discussion before, Rafael continued his proposal of an “outside society” — one that would cater to the actual needs of the homeless in Berkeley’s community. These anti-homeless laws, according to Rafael, were not the appropriate solution to the problem at hand.
According to Christopher, this new policy is divergent from how the City of Berkeley has treated homelessness in the past. Having been a part of the community for years, as both a professor and homeless individual, Christopher has benefited from the city’s mental health care.
Instead of criticizing the homeless, Christopher suggested that the City of Berkeley provide more funding for mental health. Both Rafael’s and Christopher’s speeches were met with applause.
The City Council meeting continued until about 12:30 a.m. In the wee hours of the morning, the council passed the anti-homeless ordinances. Disappointment filled the room. The vote to pass these laws, and to criminalize the homeless even further, was a failure for Suitcase Clinic and the homeless community as a whole. Yet, harmony still rang amongst those who attended the meeting.
“I attended the City Council meeting, along with other Suitcase Clinic members and clients,” said Vanessa Briseno, a SHARE coordinator. “Through our attendance, I think we played a role in empowering our clients who spoke out against the criminalization of homelessness. More importantly, we stood in solidarity with them.” The voices of our clients — their speeches, cheers, and applause — remained a victory still for Suitcase.