by Sam Lew, Suitcase Clinic

The Suitcase Clinic provides medical services, employment, housing and community resources, a warm meal and a place to chat for our clients. But we ask ourselves how effective we are truly being in serving the homeless?
How many times have we actually asked the people and the communities we are serving what they want and what they need? Are our services aligned with those needs — and, more importantly, is our organization structured so that clients can provide feedback that informs and transforms our services and the way we provide them?
These questions were the ones that spurred the creation of Suitcase Clinic’s first Town Hall on Homelessness, an open forum for homeless people to share their stories, opinions and suggestions around the topic of homelessness.
On Saturday, March 5, 2016, nearly 70 homeless individuals, social service providers and students gathered at the North Berkeley Senior Center to listen and discuss homelessness. The event began with breakfast, followed by public comment and a group discussion about solutions and what could be done next.
The Town Hall focused on homelessness in Berkeley, rather than the Suitcase Clinic’s organization, although many participants were attendees of the clinic.
It was an emotional morning as people voiced their grievances and personal experiences with homelessness. Many of them echoed the feeling of a lack of dignity, particularly with the scarce number of restrooms and showers available to homeless people, strict shelter rules, and the way that homelessness is perceived by society.
“People don’t realize how hard it is to survive on the street,” said Tim, one participant of the Town Hall. “In the newspaper, all you see is the homeless are the problem, but let people show they are people.”
There was also a sense of community and unity during the Town Hall as participants encouraged and supported one another.
“Homeless people are the most creative, talented people I’ve ever met — we have to be. I’ve seen it through artwork, musicians, the places we design to sleep,” one woman commented about the lack of employment for homeless people. “We are wasting huge amounts of human potential and talent.”
Shawn O’ Conner added, “Just give us an opportunity. If we have employment, that means we’re going to pay taxes on everything. We just want to live here and give to the community.”
After the Town Hall, many participants expressed interest in making it a monthly or bi-monthly event. While the Homeless Commission and the Berkeley Task Force are both spaces provided by the City of Berkeley that engage community members to speak and learn about homelessness, they may be inaccessible to homeless folks. Both committees meet in the evening, when homeless shelters require people to be back at the shelter.

The Suitcase Clinic held its first Town Hall on Homelessness in Berkeley, a forum for homeless people to share their ideas and experiences.
The Suitcase Clinic held its first Town Hall on Homelessness in Berkeley, a forum for homeless people to share their ideas and experiences.

“Of all the city meetings I go to about homelessness, there are never any homeless people there. But when we connect ourselves, we can make a difference,” said Paul Kealoha-Blake, who serves on the Berkeley homeless commission.
James Huynh, Executive Director of the Suitcase Clinic, reflected on the Town Hall, saying, “Someone just walked out of the door and said to me, ‘thank you for giving me a voice,’ but I didn’t give him a voice. We only gave him food.
“All the content here was generated by them, and for them to thank us always puts me back into perspective of what we are going against. It’s a system thing that permeates in people not having a chance to speak or be heard in their daily lives, which has real effects when trying to fight these systemic issues.”
This is not something that the Suitcase Clinic can do alone — nor do we want to. Ending homelessness requires a collaborative effort between many organizations, government agencies, homeless people and their allies. However, it’s going to take more than simply providing social services or changing policies.
It means working with homeless people and bringing their often-silenced voices to the forefront in all aspects of anti-homelessness work. As social service providers and activists, we need to constantly examine and re-examine our own organizations to critically evaluate whether or not we are serving the populations we claim to serve as best we can. And perhaps the best way we can do so is simply by asking: what do you think?
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The Suitcase Clinic wants to know your comments, concerns, and suggestions about homelessness and our clinic. Please email about things that you want to see changed, solutions you’d like to propose, or if you simply want to become involved with Suitcase Clinic’s advocacy efforts.