Two days ago I received the monthly Jesuit Volunteer Corps e-newsletter. A headline to a blog post caught my eye. The following post, written by a Jesuit Volunteer spending her JV year in Berkeley, California has stayed with me and follows. It is a bit long but well worth the few minutes of your time.
“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 fuchsia 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.
Victoria Richey, Berkeley 14
East Bay Community Law Center
Seattle University 14
I was taken aback by the research into the possible links between neuroscience and how we perceive the homeless. If we can’t look at the homeless as people, as human beings like ourselves then I wonder if we will ever be able to solve the problems of the poor and homeless.
I am blessed to be surrounded by staff and volunteers who do see the dignity and humanity in the people that come to WSCC. They serve with faith, hope, love and respect – just like our mission states.
Thank you Victoria Richey, JV in Berkeley for sharing your experiences. I know you and all the JVs will take your experiences from the past year and do great things in the world.
Don’t forget about the 2nd Annual Sips & Swigs on Saturday, July 25th. This is a beer enthusiast’s event meant to educate the public in beer appreciation and beer quality. Sips & Swigs will be held at St. Ignatius High School’s Kyle Field from
3-7 PM. Food is being provided by Boca Loca Burrito. Breweries include: Great Black Swamp, Great Lakes, Phoenix, Portside, Platform, Brew Kettle, Brick and Barrel, Lucky Star, Thirsty Dog, Rust Belt, Portsmouth Brewing, Nano Brew,
Bar Cento, Market Garden and more. It will be great fun! See http://www.wsccenter.org/sipsandswigs/ to purchase tickets.
As always, thank you for reading,
Upcoming at WSCC ::
Wednesday, July 22nd, 8:00am – Monthly Mass, Bishop Roger Gries, OSB presiding
Saturday, July 25th – Sips & Swigs
Wednesday, August 12th – 7:30am – Advancement Committee
Tuesday, August 18th – 8:00am – Program Committee
Wednesday, August 19th – 7:30am – Governance Committee
Friday, September 4th – 7:30am – Finance Committee
Wednesday, September 16th – 7:30am – Board of Directors
Saturday, November 7 – 6:00pm – Warm Hearts, Winter Nights – Downtown Cleveland Marriott