Opinion: Some homeless are here to stay, so they should be called ‘homesteaders’

By allowing people to set up elaborate tent cities or live in their cars, Berkeley has enabled a certain kind of permanence to settle in, which demands a redefinition of homeless.

I believe that some of what we see happening on city streets, sidewalks, street medians and other public property in the city, may be better described as “homesteading” than as “homelessness.”

To me, a “homeless” person is someone who is in a desperate situation, which they prefer to be temporary and is actively seeking ways of getting shelter or housing.  Some of the people we refer to as “service resistant” homeless might be better described as homesteaders because by “resisting” services they are indicating that the “home” they have created in a car or tent is adequate to them. If someone is living in a structure which they regard as their “home” and is not actively seeking “standard” housing, then why do we refer to them as “homeless”?  This seems like an imposition of someone else’s definition onto them. To what extent is the label “homeless” being used because it is likely to result in more empathy from others than would the term “homesteader”?

For if we referred to everyone who lived in a stick hut or a tent or yurt, a crude cabin or van or RV as “homeless”, then by this definition millions in developing nations would be “homeless”, and every elderly retiree traveling the US in a van or in an RV would be “homeless”. Yet these people do not see themselves this way.

There are people living in tents and vehicles in the East Bay, but which are “homeless” and which are “homesteaders”? Has anyone attempted to find out? Many have homes — their homes are just different than ours.  Yet they may feel quite content with their homes.  Particularly if they are given the opportunity to car-camp on spectacular bayfront property at the Berkeley Marina, where apparently as many as 50 vehicle-dwellers do now.  What’s not to like? Or if they can live in a posh campground as on the lawn at City Hall, complete with energy provided by solar panels, meal delivery, water delivery, restrooms and washing basins and trash collection apparently to be provided by City Council, located a mere 2 blocks from Trader Joe’s & a stone’s throw from downtown Berkeley and BART and all manner of shops and cafes.

This City Hall camp is an appealing setting (and not unlike some permanent villages in developing nations), where some people would be content to live their entire lives.  In fact, I’m surprised more people from squalid and trash-filled camps in Oakland have not yet migrated to City Hall.  Just give them time …since the City of Berkeley has extended the invitation by allowing the camp to remain, I predict more will come. The camp has already begun to creep onto the north lawn…will people also eventually camp in front of the police building? Is the city capable of drawing any lines?

By allowing people to set up elaborate tent camps, and by allowing people to live in their cars all over the city, by allowing people to appropriate public property for indefinite private use as a campground, we enable the transition from homeless to homesteader. We, in essence, allowing public land to now be open for homesteading.

There was an article in Berkeleyside not long ago about a “homeless” man living at the Aquatic Park who had lost a job as a mortgage broker 9 years ago and was now setting up solar panels for homeless camps in the East Bay. Isn’t this man really a “homesteader” who’s realized it is less expensive to live on public land than to pay rent?  Many people are realizing this and Berkeley is helping them realize their dream.

Have you been to the Berkeley Marina recently? People are living in vehicles in every parking lot, and there’s a row of about a dozen large RVs lined up on Marina Blvd, which permanent camping, e.g. homesteading, the city is allowing. There are hundreds of other people living in vehicles on streets throughout Berkeley, and with many, there is no indication that they are seeking standard housing. Rather, some vehicles are large and elaborate, festooned with the paraphernalia indicative of a significant and long-term investment in this “home.”

I’ve encountered people who’ve lived for many years in vehicles on streets in Berkeley.  I know of two people who moved out of standard housing in order to live in converted commercial vehicles on public streets in Berkeley. One has done this for about a year, the other for thee years. For a while, I saw posts on Nextdoor from a man who said that though he was employed and had money for housing, it was his choice to live instead in a secret campsite in the East Bay Hills. He is a homesteader.

Seeing the ease with which the homeless and homesteaders are able to appropriate public property to set up their homes, I joked with a friend about how there are other people with other needs who also would like to seize public property to use for their private needs. For instance many people are short on space in their homes, due to the increasing cost of housing. Call them the “space-less” people. And if public property is “up for grabs,” then why not? I was astonished to find out this has apparently begun to happen. There’s a place in the Rockridge area in Oakland where, according to residents in the area, a housed person, a real “space-less” individual, has apparently appropriated an area of public sidewalk to store his things that he doesn’t have room for in his house.  And the sidewalk he’s using is apparently not even close to where he lives.

To what extent are there “more” homeless people in the city, and to what extent are there just more people who have always been more of the homesteading sort, who are happy that the city has finally opened public lands to homesteading?

Alice Steinmetz, a small business consultant, website designer, visual artist, photographer, and writer, has lived in a South Berkeley neighborhood for 15 years and in the East Bay for 38 years.