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Strangers No More

by Victoria Richey, Berkeley ’14
Seattle University ’14
Homeless Outreach Coordinator, East Bay Community Law Center

“Wait, I have something for you guys!”

My three roommates and I paused, our non-verbal hesitancy on full display as we kept a clear radius from this stranger, yet still subject to the gravitational pull of common courtesy.

“Trust me. You’ll want this,” she said, as she rummaged through an ambiguously labeled box and made the rare promise of a free gift.

We still weren’t convinced. “We have to be somewhere soon,” my roommate said shyly.

“Trust me,” the stranger lady said.

To our surprise, she pulled out a box of fuschia orchids, and gave each of us a stem of orchids to take with us.

Only hours later did I realize the irony of our hesitancy at receiving a beautiful gift from a stranger.

We had been en route to a canvassing event, where we would be going door-to-door asking people to oppose a slew of ordinances against homeless persons recently proposed by a Berkeley council member. One of the ordinances would make it illegal for anyone to have an object larger than two feet in a public space for more than an hour, so essentially people could no longer sleep outside on any sort of makeshift bedding. Another ordinance would make it illegal for anyone to lie down on a planter box. A third would criminalize the ownership of “noncommercial expressive materials,” like a guitar case, in public spaces. The list of ordinances goes on. If passed, the default punishment for violating these ordinances would be six months in county jail, a $1,000 fine, and a criminal record. (The stakes are high: In California, adults with a criminal conviction—even if it’s later dismissed—cannot hide it from government employers, licensing boards, hospitals, schools, and more.)

The postcard we were asking Berkeley residents to sign acknowledged the “problem” of homelessness in Berkeley, but said it should not be addressed by rerouting people into the criminal justice system. Plus it unfairly targets homeless persons. Would a drunk college student be cited for public urination? Maybe. Would a homeless person be cited for it? Definitely.

People experiencing homelessness make up one group, but not the only group, that does not receive equal treatment under the law. Like other marginalized groups, they are disproportionately pulled over, cited, and harassed by law enforcement officials. They do not have access to private attorneys, and do not get free legal representation on non-criminal matters, like in traffic court.

When my roommate and I rang doorbells in Berkeley, we expected its famously liberal residents to quickly side with us and recognize the injustice of these ordinances. Instead, we received a variety of responses, some quite disappointing, including a few quick door slams.

“Berkeley has been liberal enough,” a gruff man said.

“There is trash everywhere, and they’re bad for business,” another person said.

The most frustrating response came from one resentful woman, who told us sharply, “I want to see my downtown cleaned up.”

My teeth clenched as she spoke about homeless people as if they were pieces of dirt that should be swept away, and as she spoke about the Berkeley community—her downtown—as if it belonged solely to her.

Her fear of strangers—similar to my fear of the stranger offering us flowers—is perpetuated by the distance she has created between herself and the people experiencing homelessness. Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated how our implicit bias exists at the neurological level. Studies have found that the regions of our brains which are activated when we see a person who is homeless can be the same regions activated when we see an image of a non-human animal. This dehumanization allows those who are privileged to be callous to the problems of those on the economic or social margins. How can we close the distance between us and strangers, so when they offer us a great gift, we are ready to accept it? This is the question I hope to take with me as I transition out of my placement in August and embark on my new, ruined life.