Opinion: Anti-homeless prejudice is thriving in Berkeley

People who are homeless come from all walks of life. Many are working or trying to work and have served in the military. But some housed residents just assume the homeless are lazy or are parasites.

“Get a job, you lazy bum,” a man shouts out the tinted windows of his 4×4 red truck, as he darts through the intersection of Adeline and Alcatraz.

This is a recognizable phrase. Others in the same theme include, “Stop being a drag on society,” or “Be productive,” or “Stop running up my taxes,” or ”Work and pay your fair share.”

These comments make the assumption that homeless people are all lazy, unemployed, aren’t paying taxes and are waiting for a free handout.

It is certainly easy to label all homeless people like this to justify a person’s anti-homeless prejudice. That attitude relieves individuals of any concern for their fellow human beings. This pattern of thought comes from people with a limited understanding of homelessness who generally have no desire to learn more.

I, too, used to believe that being homeless was something that happened to people with no drive or ambition, people who wouldn’t take responsibility for their lives, people who would rather drink and take drugs instead of living in a house.

However, I was introduced to homelessness in a very upfront and personal manner when I lost everything and found myself living on the streets. This is when I learned that the people living on the streets are from all walks of life. They are individuals who worked steady jobs for years on end, paid taxes, raised families, served in our military, and helped build America, not tear it down.

Instead of empathy and understanding, we are subjected to “homeless profiling.” We are all considered to be a subhuman species only worthy of living on the streets, spending our nights sleeping on layers of cardboard with a make-do blanket, tarps stretched between shopping carts and if you’re lucky a “tent.”

One could ask if it’s so bad why don’t people living on the streets get a job and get off the streets?

Many people on the streets that I personally know are actively working and or living on SSI/retirement and simply cannot afford to pay the cost of rent in Berkeley. When I asked “why don’t you just move to an affordable area?” the most common answer I received is “everyone I know lives here.”

I was surprised to find out how many individuals 50+ years old have lived their entire life in Berkeley as a housed resident for the majority of the time. Only recently has the skyrocketing cost of rent in Berkeley put so many elderly and vulnerable citizens on the streets, living homeless with very few options.

For the rest of us, including you,  getting a job in this economy is very competitive. Employers are faced with the task of finding the right person for the job. Preferably a person that is currently working. Being employed demonstrates a certain sense of reliability, and the following also comes into play.

* Will this person fit in with the others working here and how will this person represent the business?

* What is their appearance like, hygiene, hair, clothing, etc?

* What skills and abilities does this person possess?

These are just a few considerations that come into play for anyone seeking steady employment.

Now let’s see how that can affect a person living on the streets and their ability to secure a job in today’s market.

Let us first consider the following factors such as a person’s access to showers. (If you are working around people, regular showers are definitely necessary). Normally, homeless shower facilities are open from 8:00 am. to 4:00 pm. and they are mostly closed on the weekend.

The next consideration is wearing clean clothes, preferably ones that aren’t badly wrinkled. When you live out of a backpack, this can be a challenge, especially during the rainy season. Also, the homeless facilities that allow you to wash your clothing pretty much have a schedule matching that of the showers.

And there is the issue of eating. The locations that feed the homeless are typically open from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Transportation can be a real problem as well and being on time for work is a prerequisite.

If you get the job, your next concern will be finding a safe place to sleep in the immediate vicinity.

These are not excuses, just a few facts.

Now we come to the bomb that can kill a potential job interview. Do I or do I not tell the person doing the interviewing that I am homeless?

If I tell this person I am living on the streets but determined to get back on my feet and really need this job that would show determination and effort to re-establish myself. Perhaps if they know, I will be given this opportunity for employment.

In my experience, the answer is “no”.  It is best to hide that you are homeless from a potential employer.

I went on several interviews for minimum wage jobs. When I spoke about living on the streets, the interview was over, regardless of how long we continued to talk.

I experienced this first-hand at a large chain grocery store on Shattuck Avenue. I had been going to Starbucks in the store over the course of a year. I had developed a good relationship with the employees there. The staff informed me of a position open in the bakery section. I spoke with the manager of the bakery department and she was ready to hire me. I just needed to fill out an application, which I promptly did.

After waiting for a week, I checked with the bakery manager who told me the store manager had not received my application. She went to get her boss. As the manager walked up, It was apparent she had no intention of hiring me. The instant she saw me she got an expression on her face as if she stepped in something.

I followed the store manager to her office to fill out another application. But the manager failed to ask me basic questions such as, “Do you have any experience,” or Are you looking for full time or part-time work?” Or “What hours are you available?”  Instead, all she said was “here is an application to fill out.”

This is short for “No way in hell am I hiring you.”

It is reasonable to believe the manager thought if this person is homeless there must be a reason. Maybe he is an alcoholic or a drug addict. Will this person steal from me or try to get hurt and sue me? He is probably just unreliable and can’t keep a job. Not to mention I have too many people who need work to support themselves and their families. I can’t take the chance of hiring someone who will probably quit after a paycheck or two.

This is just one form of homeless profiling.

I continued with my job hunt, and after filling out multiple applications and going to several interviews I was able to secure two jobs.

The first job was on a construction site building reinforced concrete foundations to meet earthquake building requirements. This was incredibly labor-intensive.

Concrete work consists of digging trenches, wiring the rebar reinforcement rods together, building forms to hold the concrete, pouring, vibrating, and finishing the concrete. This job involved 10 hour days, 50 hours a week. No complaints here, I was happy to have the work and it paid very well at $25 an hour.

Unfortunately, construction work is on a per-job basis. I worked until that project was completed.

This allowed me to purchase a 2005 PT Cruiser and with a few additional repairs and title and registration, I thought I was off to a good start. I kept the car parked while I continued to work to save up for car insurance as well to get my driver’s license renewed. Once these items were in place I could start delivering food as well as having transportation for other potential work.

It was a good plan, however, the car was towed while parked on the street. With the tow and storage fees, it was as good as gone.

This was disappointing but I have found that over the course of time incidents such as this do not have any lasting effect on life.

The second job was on the weekends in San Francisco. I washed teapots, petite saucers and cups, one at a time at this cool little tea and crumpets restaurant.

The dishwashing job paid the minimum wage in San Francisco of $14 an hour.  When the restaurant was busy on a Saturday and Sunday I could work six hours a day. Some weekends were slow and my help was not needed. Eventually, the employment ran its course and it was on to another minimum wage job.

Jobs such as these — minimum wage or extreme physical labor — are what’s available for the homeless, yet I hear “Get a job you lazy bum.”

Unfortunately, there are those whose arrogance or perhaps their fear will not allow them to see less fortunate individuals as human beings. Instead, we are just blights on society, not real people, just subhuman homeless entities living on street corners.

Homeless profiling and anti-homeless prejudice is a real thing in Berkeley, California.

When I first arrived in Berkeley I thought, “Wow, this city is the most progressive and forward-thinking place I have ever been.” I found it amazing to walk down the street and see and hear multiple cultures with multiple beliefs, living in harmony, courteous and polite to one another. This is the picture in my head when I reflect on my time spent in Berkeley.

One would believe that in a city as progressive as Berkeley, anti-homeless prejudice and homeless profiling would be a thing of the past.

But they are not.

Timothy Busby writes of his accounts experienced over the past 5+ years of living on the streets in multiple cities and states.