18 January 2010

A memory of Berkeley

I spent my university years in Berkeley, California, a place very different from the suburban environment I'd previously been used to. One of Berkeley's most salient features was its large population of homeless people who panhandled for spare change everywhere. They were occasionally aggressive, but it was the pervasiveness of the practice that made it a nuisance.

I don't remember exactly when this specific incident happened, but it must have been soon after I arrived there. I do remember that it was twilight.

Some ways away from me -- perhaps it was across the street -- a homeless man with his belongings (mostly bedding or something similar by the looks of it) in a shopping cart had been stopped by two cops. He had two or three of those big 40-ounce bottles of cheap alcohol in his possession. The cops unscrewed the tops of the bottles and stuck them upside down in the mass of stuff in the cart and left them like that while they talked with the homeless guy. I was too far away to hear what was being said, but I could see the bubbles glugging upward inside the bottles as their contents emptied out into the material in the cart, saturating it. I don't remember whether I stopped to watch the encounter through to its end, but it was pretty clear what they were doing -- keeping the guy talking until all his stuff was thoroughly soaked.

Looking back on this now, the odd thing is that at the time the cops' behavior didn't strike me as particularly shocking or wrong or even surprising. Back then, I was still at the stage of getting used to the world, and of simply accepting whatever I saw. If I thought about it at all, I figured that was just the kind of thing that was normally done with bums. They weren't quite people, not the way neighbors and professors and fellow students were people.

It's a strange thing to remember a time when I myself, by my own current standards, sometimes wouldn't have seemed quite human.


Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

Poignant. My final - and the worst - job was at the main public library. Across the street was a little park where the homeless would congregate. The head of the library complained and complained until the city redesigned the park so the homeless had nowhere to sit. Of course no one else could either.

As soon as the homeless had to leave the shelters in the morning, they'd head to the library and wait till it opened and then stream through the front door. Some of them would use the bathrooms to wash up and brush their teeth.

Some I got to recognize and we'd say hello. There was one who had a bum foot and sometimes I'd give him the rest of my lunch. He had the meanest face I've ever seen on a person.

I want to help but some make me uncomfortable, even frightened. Several people have been killed here but usually by other homeless.

I think what those cops did, however, was rotten as hell and I'd like to think that wouldn't happen in today's world.

18 January, 2010 14:01  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It's a genuine problem because large numbers of homeless people can make life unpleasant for everyone else -- a lot of the ones in Berkeley were drunks, druggies, or mentally disturbed (those things were probably why they had become homeless in the first place), and they were sometimes menacing, particularly to women. There was a park in Berkeley, too, where they tended to congregate, and most other people didn't feel comfortable going there. But the kind of arbitrary cruelty and abuse of power which I saw on that one occasion is something no decent society should tolerate.

18 January, 2010 14:35  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

Many, many of them are alchies, druggies and mentally ill with the latter made up mostly of vets with PTSS. But now, many of them are victims of the economy. It's kind of like an urban dust bowl, if you will.

We have a tent city which seems to be better maintained than my
neighbors piece of the breezeway. : ( We have whole families sleeping in cars at night, and sitting on the sidewalk and leaning against buildings during the day.

Actually, the police here seem to be pretty patient with them. They didn't used to be. The odd thing is that even on nights of 10 degrees or lower, volunteers from the shelters will try to round them up but they refuse to go in.

Are you speaking of People's Park?

18 January, 2010 15:14  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

You just responded the only way at the time you knew maybe. Then ... what can you do as a citizen? cop's like that will tell you to take a hike... and if you mouth off, they will charge you with resistance and obstruction.

Funny how dumb some cops really are (yes, that was dumb, but happens all the time), I mean ... when I worked street security in the night club district in Dallas' West Village, I personally knew every homeless person and crack addict, hooker, and even knew the drug choice of most ... whether it was rock/crack, weed, boy/heroin or what have you. It was common for me to give out change, cigarettes, and buy homeless guy's 40's of malt liquor, why? ... because I quickly learned that these folk's were eyes and ear's for me, and gave me tip's many a time's on who to look for, or whatever on more serious thing's like jacking car's and clubgoer's (we had alot of robberies). A club owner asked me one night, why I knew so many of those street type's? I told him ...."it's in our best interest guy". One evening a gal drunk coming late out of a club dropped her purse on the sidewalk, drunk and tryin to gather her stuff that fell out of the purse ... I helped her ... picked up a vial of cocaine that fell out ... handed it to her since it was her's (and she knew what I was ... I had my uniform dress on) ... she said ... "that's not mine Sir" out of fear because it was dope, I told her ... "Just take it ... I'm too goddanm tired and about to call it a night (about 3am) to play with this" or similar ... she said "thank you Sir" and left. What would be the point of telling fellow DPD contract officer's to pinch her? The way I seen it on the street's ... I do you a favour ... and you may be able to do me a favour someday...heh? I was looking for those who were jacking folk's belonging's, fight's, and such ... not folk's bangin a couple bump's of rock or smoking a joint or such (I got high and partied when I was younger too). Being a hotshot wont cut it, in those enviroment's, or on college campuses.

Thank You Guy .......

18 January, 2010 16:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TNL: Yep, People's Park. For years I lived just a few blocks from it. I recall reading about a tent city too, mostly run by some of the more functional homeless people themselves. They, too, resisted being dispersed into traditional shelters.

My impression is that police were rarely as abusive as in the particular incident I described here.

It figures that homelessness increases during recessions, but Berkeley was something of a special case. It attracted homeless people from all over because of its tolerant official policy, its population of easy marks for panhandling (students), and its mild year-round weather. The homeless were practically an institution of the place.

RC: I can see that in your situation maintaining those kinds of relationships would have been beenficial. Most people don't have much to offer the homeless (aside from spare change, of course), nor could they particularly benefit from doing so.

I really can't claim to have been aware enough in those days to form any real picture of what the situation of homeless people in Berkeley was. Most of the time I ignored them -- there were plenty of other things going on. That one memory has stuck in my mind, though.

18 January, 2010 18:01  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

I really don't recall seeing a lot of homeless people back then - except for my hippie friends and we all seemed to look alike. But seriously, I was on a college campus and lived nearby and away from areas where they congregated.
When I moved to Denver, panhandlers were the problem there and in Boulder. In Nashville we have the wanna-be musicians who are going to make it big but don't have the money to get home.

I think we all have times when we look back and wonder if we were human. There are days now when I wonder even now. I'm not always comfortable with myself either.

18 January, 2010 22:42  
Blogger Alessandro Machi said...

I think what the police were doing was both wrong, and right at the same time.

Instead of citing the homeless person for having the beer, (assuming it is a citable offense) they emptied the beer.

Why empty it on the homeless person's "stuff" instead of in the street?

Maybe it was a wake up call? Don't use the beer to help accept your present fate?

Would be interesting to find out if in any way that was a wake up call for that homeless person, or simply one more blow to their fragile way of life.

19 January, 2010 01:03  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I wanted to comment on a couple point's here that you made to tnlib, as far as when you lived a few block's from that Peoples Park I reckon ya'll called it. You pointed out mild weather, official policies, practically an institution, student's being easy mark's for panhandler's .... those 4 point's alone are the key to why it is so attractive ... one thing for sure, homeless folk's are not dumb when it come's to survival, and have an excellent communication's network through word of mouth nationwide.

I havent been to Berkeley, I been through (travelling) San Francisco and Sacramento, I know it's close. But of all over the nation that I have been ... the largest homeless population I seen was in Los Angeles .... Miami was also large ... and I hear that San Diego is, although I hadnt been there either, but lived in Los Angeles myself as well as Miami. In Texas for instance Houston has a large rate, then of course Dallas. Again ... weather is a big factor in Houston, Miami, LA, and SD. Downtown Dallas area has between 5 and 6 thousand, however ... Dallas can get very cold on winter day's, unlike those other cities, then across the Metroplex (metro area) here ... you see them as well, from Fort Worth to Arlington ... the attraction here would be because Dallas is a "cash flash" type town, and alot of bleeding heart type's from the left ... and the christian money type's on the right. Intersection panhandling is great in this town, it is of course since under former Mayor Laura Miller illegal and citatable with a ticket or written warning,at major intersection's and in front of retail stores and eateries/bar's, but cop's gave up on writing ticket's for it about a year after it was made law, technically it's a violation, just not enforced one.

WFAA did an investigative report on panhandling in North Dallas' Preston/LBJ area (Bush' home)they followed around undercover a guy for a week, he made they found out about $300-$400 per day. They followed him riding a bus to a pay as you park lot a few miles away everyday for a week, where he would just drive home from there, he had a home in Plano (far North Dallas suburb) that was at least about $150,000 home ... a few bedroom's (real estate here is about half in cost of LA for instance) ... they knocked on his door one day ... when he seen the camera ... he slammed the door and never again answered, it was hilarious!

later Guy ........

19 January, 2010 07:05  
Blogger TomCat said...

Where I live, I see homeless people almost every time I leave home. I never give them money, as I have no desire to contribute to their misery, but I often pocket a sandwich or two before I leave home. The behavior of the police, on this occasion, saddens me.

19 January, 2010 11:08  
Blogger Kentucky Rain said...

I spent my entire adult life as a cop, at least until the last seven years when I got too old to "do" so I had to "teach." Sadly, I have seen such demonstrations of complete disrespect by law enforcement, especially in the late 60's and early 70's. These days not so much. Such incidents are now relatively isolated and more often than not take place in large metropolitan areas. This was a great post.

19 January, 2010 13:13  
Blogger JoeBama "Truth 101" Kelly said...

I always give them something. I figured if it really was a guy just down on his luck that I didn't give anything to I'd be miserable. If I get had, I get had. Beats hell out of being a dick.

19 January, 2010 13:22  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

18 February, 2010 03:11  

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