Commentary by Mike Lee

I realized over breakfast this morning that I am an embarrassment to the city. Here you have public policy spending millions of dollars on people just like me. The end result is that me and mine wind up with a sandwich and maybe a mat on the floor. Once in a while, one of us maybe gets a place inside, because of factors beyond our control.
Playing the housing game is just like playing slots in Las Vegas. You put your money (or time) in, pull the handle and hope for a positive result. At least in Vegas, if you hit the jackpot you get at least a roast beef sandwich.
It seems that once you attain the status of homelessness, you become a non-person — a liability to be pandered to or criminalized. Never mind that at my age of 60, with an income and no inclination to commit crimes, do drugs or spend all my money at the liquor store, I’m still considered an object to be managed. Talked about in all sorts of ways. Seen but never acknowledged.
Recently I had the misfortune to interact with the City of Berkeley’s newest scheme in combating homelessness. It’s called the coordinated entry system. In a nutshell, it is supposed to be a one-stop shop for homeless services. In reality, it is piles of paper work and, quite frankly, a complete waste of time.
Keep in mind that in my particular instance, I am way over-qualified for services. This is based on federal guidelines which take into account my age, health, and length of homelessness. Not only do I score very high on these factors, I have an income and no current substance issues. I am the poster child for who society wants to see off the sidewalks of Berkeley.
When the guidelines were crafted, it was people just like me that they had in mind to provide a hand up, and not a handout.
After endless amounts of time and travel filling out stupid forms, we come to my needing to prove I’m homeless. Just being there proves a need. What, you think somebody with sufficient resources is going to go through this process for a bug-infested hotel room? “Yeah, buddy, I’m not going to pay for a nice clean place; let’s go live in dirt and squalor.”
Let’s set that silliness aside for a moment and consider who you are interviewing. I find myself in the role of being a public figure. It’s not any one thing that I’ve done. It’s probably because I’m opinionated and have a big mouth. I meet on a regular basis with decision makers within the City of Berkeley whom for some odd reason or another think I might have something useful to say.

Michael Lee is an activist among homeless people in Berkeley, and was a leader in the Liberty City occupation. Photo by David Bacon
Michael Lee is an activist among homeless people in Berkeley, and was a leader in the Liberty City occupation. Photo by David Bacon

I smiled and said the form isn’t necessary. Just pick up the phone and call the City, and the first person that answers, you ask them about me. I’m not just any old bum, but a candidate for mayor and a very loud advocate for the community. As such I’m sort of kind of notorious here in Berkeley.
As I walked away from this whole no-sense I thought: My gawd, if they treat me this way, think of someone in my same exact position who is largely unknown. How do they prove they are homeless?
The City’s embarrassment arises from the fact that despite spending all this money, devising numerous schemes and five-year plans, ad nauseum, they still can’t get one bum off the street. I am proof positive that the system is broken. That it is charity and not solution-based.
I am truly blessed that I enjoy some skill, talents and a reasonable level of intelligence. So much so that recently a member of the dark side said I was one of the more rational and reasonable people on the other side of the aisle. I don’t say these things to pump up my chest, brag or think I’m special, but to point out that if you can’t put me in a house, how is your system going to deal with someone of less abilities or financial resources?
The system is broken and needs to be fixed. You start by looking at this bum’s situation and asking yourself this: What kind of system are we going to create to help people like Mike get a house? Not a sandwich or a pat on the head. A hand up and not a hand out.