Here, no oneâ€™s in charge and decisions are made by consensus. This place is at the forefront of theÂ housing crisisÂ â€” in fact, itâ€™s the reason the people here came together in the first place.Â
Itâ€™s a beautiful sunny day in south Berkeley and Robin Silver is working on solar panels. Heâ€™s tidying up some loose cords, and securing the panels from theft. This solar system is a work in progress, it took a while to cobble together all the different components.Â
â€śWe just quintupled our power output here,â€ť he says. â€śWe were previously able to charge cell phones and laptops. Now weâ€™ll be able to charge wheelchairs, kitchen appliances, all that kind of stuff.â€ť
While he works he tells me about the diversity of his community.Â
â€śI think this camp is a microcosm of the worldâ€™s social ills. Weâ€™re kind of the world in a teapot here. There are people here who have been millionaires, we have Phdâ€™s, and people who have never read a book. Itâ€™s magical, traumatic, stressful.â€ť He explains the challenges this creates.â€śThereâ€™s two different realities going on, one is the ideal that weâ€™re a consensus, and the reality is whoâ€™s got the most moxie and will to get their way.â€ť
But in spite of their diversity they all face one common challenge: Homelessness. Because of the housing crisis, homeless encampments are an increasingly common sight all over the Bay Area. This camp sits between the sidewalk and the curb on a busy stretch of Adeline avenue. Every few minutes passing BART trains interrupt conversation. Itâ€™s like BART has a pause button on their lives. Leslie Degen tells me its a sober camp. They also have a locked porta potty and weekly trash pickup. The camp has been in this spot for over a year. Leslieâ€™s worried theyâ€™ll be asked to move.Â
â€śI like this living situation here,â€ť He says â€śIt works for me. Iâ€™ve been wondering why we havenâ€™t been served with an eviction notice. I been thinking about it every day.â€ť
So why hasnâ€™t the city moved them? I ask Matthai Chakko, the assistant to Berkeleyâ€™s city manager. â€śOur strategy around encampments is we prioritize based on health and safety concerns,â€ť He says. â€śOver the past year I believe there were twenty times that we moved an encampment. The kinds of complaints weâ€™ve seen in different parts of the city have included things like garbage, feces, needles, criminal behavior.â€ť There are currently over 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley, up thirteen percent in the last two years.Â
â€śWe spend seventeen million dollars a year on a set of homeless services,â€ť Matthai explains. â€śOver the past years we have tried to transition to more of our funding and focus to getting people housed, but itâ€™s not enough.â€ť
The money also goes toward mental health workers, a mobile crisis unit, and an outreach team that offers services to people on the street. Matthai says when camps are moved everyone is offered a voucher for a shelter, but many prefer to stay on the streets. If Leslie has to move he says he wonâ€™t take a shelter voucher either.Â
â€śI tried the shelters and I was attacked twice. Thatâ€™s how I lost quite a bit of my upper teeth.â€ťBut he has benefited from other services the city offers. He says heâ€™s getting good medical treatment.Â
â€śThereâ€™s a clinic not too far that throws out the net and helps catch people like me. I immediately began to respond to medication, Iâ€™m doing much better these days. The thought of returning back to the sidewalk, I donâ€™t wanna do that.â€ťÂ
He says his life is more stable than its been in years, which is why he hopes their camp doesnâ€™t have to move. Robin Silver thinks the solar panels will help shield them from removal.Â
â€śI think they are one of our biggest positive public relations visual symbols. I think they show organization and ingenuity. Along with the panels, we have the orderly arrangement of the tents, and keeping the camp clean.â€ť I ask what might happen to the solar panels if the camp had to move?
â€śI view them as a sand painting, When Iâ€™m in my better moments, this can all be wiped away in a moment so donâ€™t be attached, and thatâ€™s a big lesson for life, realizing the impermanence of all things and being okay with all that.â€ťIf they do have to move they will move as a community, and continue to look out for each other.
â€śHuman beings are human beings regardless of economic and living situation.Treat everybody as sentient beings and see the light in everybody.â€ť
He says if they can live together and solve their problems harmoniously, the rest of the world can too.