On a lazy Sunday on Solano Avenue in Berkeley as I am strolling into my favorite coffee shop, I meet a woman who goes by the nickname Star. Star is a woman in her fifties of Latin-American descent who tells me she moved to the Bay Area from New York City over 20 years ago. In the beginning she is reluctant to talk to me and tells me I can write an article about her, but that she does not want her picture in the paper, because she says “she takes care of herself and is not a thief.” She is sitting on the sidewalk, zipped up in a tent without poles, and her belongings are lined up behind her in front of a closed business. As I sit down, I see that her hair and fingernails are clean, and her belongings are put away and organized. She tells me she doesn’t do drugs and does not smoke. I believe her. What I see as we start talking is a woman with learning disabilities and no family, making the best of a bad situation.
She tells me she picked this spot because she knows she can sit here for at least 24 hours before someone tells her to move, and there is still enough foot traffic that someone will most likely give her a few dollars so she can eat before the end of the day.
“I didn’t think you were a thief,” I tell her, reassuringly. “I just want to tell your story, I think it’s important.”
“Well you’re a nice person,” she tells me. “Those women up there,” she says pointing at the Berkeley Hills, “they told me I should be burned and that I don’t deserve to live. They don’t have any right to judge me like that, that’s not how God wants us to be.” She tells me this with an almost childlike demeanor.
After some encouragement, she opens up and starts telling me about her situation. She even agrees to let me photograph her belongings as long as her face is not in the picture. Star’s story is like so many others. She receives an Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check and has for most of her life. She says she used to find work sweeping steps and through online companies, but that the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse. She tells me she does not want to be homeless like some other people do. That she is a “normal” person and that “those women,” she says again pointing to the hills, “don’t understand, they could easily end up in this situation too. They don’t have any right to judge me,” she says again. “They are so mean to me. They tell me I don’t have a right to live and that I should be burned.”
“What is the worst thing that’s happened to you living on the streets?” I ask her. “Have you been beat up or raped or anything like that?”
“No,” she tells me, “nothing like that. I have been robbed, sometimes by people like them,” she says again pointing at the hills, “sometimes by the city workers. They come through here and make fun of me and throw my stuff away. That’s not their job. Their job is to clean up the streets and empty the trash, not throw my stuff away.” Her voice cracks and she almost starts crying. “I’ve had to spend so much money re-buying the stuff they throw away. I want to start a lawsuit,” she tells me.
I see how upset she gets trying to talk about her situation. I really do understand how she feels. It seems to me that one of the most painful things a person can endure in this life is being bullied. And she isn’t talking about being bullied by high school classmates. She is telling me about being bullied by grown women who are rich enough and successful enough to live in the Berkeley Hills, who have enough leisure to shop on Solano Avenue on a Sunday afternoon. Star’s most painful street experience is not physical violence, but that feeling of loneliness that comes from not being wanted.
And that, it seems to me, is something that all homeless people experience at one time or another.
I ask Star what she needs to truly change her situation. “I don’t mean a meal or a couple of bucks to get through the day,” I tell her. “I mean something big, something that would get you housed and warm and feeling like you really didn’t have to live like this anymore.”
“A house,” she tells me. “I had an apartment in the city seven years ago and it didn’t work out. There were too many crack dealers and it was too loud, and I didn’t feel safe so I had to move. I’m better off on the streets than in that environment. I applied for housing assistance here in Berkeley, and they told me the waiting list was eight years long, and that priority is given to single women with children and the elderly. I can’t do that. That’s a joke. Why even bother signing up?”
She tells me she receives approximately $1,100 a month from SSI and that is all she has to live on each month. In an area where the average price of a one-bedroom apartment is $3,000, deposits and good credit required, it is easy to see why she lives on the street.
Social Security is based on federal, not local, poverty guidelines, and has not been updated properly in years. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recommends that a person should budget between 25 to 33% of their gross monthly income for housing and never over 40%. Just so we are clear, 40 percent of Star’s $1,100 per month is only $440, and there are hundreds of thousands of people living on that same amount of federally allotted disability income—most of them are old, sick or have severe disabilities. You show me the acceptable housing solution anywhere in the U.S. where the rent is $440 today.These are the same guidelines most professionally managed apartment complexes use for screening tenants, as well as the guidelines used to determine if a person can afford a mortgage.
So herein is the problem. Where is someone like Star, who has been deemed “disabled” by the federal government and who is quickly approaching retirement age supposed to live? Some say, get off disability and get a job; others say, move somewhere cheaper. But these are not realistic solutions. After talking to her for a few minutes, I question what kind of work she could realistically do. Her disabilities are not her fault and have only been compounded by age. Second, this area is her home. She has lived here for over 20 years, and saying “just move somewhere cheaper” is just as ridiculous as saying “just go get a job.” And third, that suggestion of moving and working elsewhere is only passing the buck to another city where the same problem still exists. Then, what is the answer to this type of homelessness? Star nailed it beautifully and succinctly: a house.
Not a hotel voucher, not a cot in a homeless shelter, not a quick fix. Not a handout. And certainly not anyone’s pity or judgment. Star needs a house, a place that’s hers. If it were available, I believe she would pay for it and happily take care of it to the best of her ability and be a good neighbor.
It seems that this is an area where capitalism is failing, and all of us, collectively, need to rethink the fabric of our society. When some of the richest people in the country have made millions in the form of passive income through rent collection, why are there no controls in place to meaningfully tax that income, cap inflation and use that money to ensure that every single one of us has access to a safe, secure and comfortable place to live?
We have the resources to fix this problem. It is only a matter of allocating them appropriately and taking the time to care.
This piece originally appeared in the “Street Spirits” column of Street Spirit, which is published in the East Bay and, like Street Sheet, is sold by vendors who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness. Visit it on thestreetspirit.org.