7- Getting an education in empathy – a student grapples with Berkeley’s streets

By Alexis Murilo Amezcua

As a new entering undergraduate student at UC Berkeley a few months ago, the first piece of advice I received about living in Berkeley was “DO NOT GO BY PEOPLE’S PARK!” The park situated between the Unit 1 and Unit 2 dorms has become a place of gathering and housing for the homeless population of Berkeley, but to the already anxious undergrads, it has become memorialized as a scary and dangerous place, one that should be avoided at all costs.

Prior to entering UCB, my personal relationship with homelessness was slight. In the small East Bay city of Oakley, where I grew up, homelessness was few and far between. It wasn’t like Oakley itself did not have socioeconomic differences, there were certainly unhoused folks who one would witness, but their frequency was scarce. Likewise, the agricultural roots and conservatism that centered itself in Oakley killed any political action towards homelessness before it even began. Homelessness was an idea rarely discussed, and for a new student entering the Berkeley area, it would leave many questions unasked and unanswered.

So as my first semester began, I had to quickly think of a way to incorporate myself into an exciting street culture that included many of the “crazies” and “weirdos” people would talk about. Morally, I knew that I couldn’t do what many others did, keep your head down, pull out a phone, ignore. Should I strike up a conversation? How can I be helpful without showing pity or being condescending? Can I even do that? Should I just keep my head down, maybe that’s easier???

Regardless if I even had a remote answer to any of my questions, the general sentiments created about homelessness by the university community I was entering did not make it any easier. I began to educate myself about the history of homelessness in Berkeley and People’s Park. I discovered that the University itself has continued to play an active role in the displacement of the unhoused population and has become a key aggressor towards People’s Park basically since its foundation.

I’d had my first “aha” moment. This made so much sense. A reason as to why the sentiments regarding homelessness at the University had not changed, or rather the reason why’d they confine themselves to be so negative, was because the University did not care to have them change. The institution thought and portrayed itself as highly liberal and progressive. It was a quality I’d hear constantly on first-week tours and read on pamphlets, but in reality, it was an excuse to overextend jurisdiction on the surrounding city and its issues.

So, what now? I understood that I couldn’t trust the opinions of the University and I, well I was too new to the issue to have any substantive input. I was unsure how to continue. But I guess I could continue by doing what I knew best, calling out bullshit. Wrap my head around that any sort of City/University-sponsored initiative was probably going to be, what many call a “bandaid” on the wound. Systemic change is needed to solve homelessness, anything else acts as a time holder for the problem.

Yet, there still existed an abhorrent rhetoric around homelessness and community spaces like People’s Park. On a person to person basis, how does one extend empathy and give sympathy? This wasn’t, isn’t, a question solely about homelessness now, but rather of solidarity and acknowledgment of a struggle. How does this translate into the everyday? Creating eye contact, giving money? How do I absolve the rhetoric I had created? And how do I extend this practice to my family, friends, peers?

The more I informed myself about the issue, the more questions I began to get answered. I realized that this wasn’t just an individualized issue and so there were groups of activists from all backgrounds in Berkeley concerning themselves with actively responding to the issues I had seen too. Showing my support to these groups, while educating myself, seemed like the best starting point for me.

By the time I wrote this, I had finished my first semester at UCB. Unsurprisingly, I’ve learned the University hopes to build new student housing on People’s Park Property, announced August 2019. It’s possible that announcements like these may never change, and the majority sentiment of UCB towards homelessness may not change either, but for a student who has come from little experience of such an issue, I can ensure that I will be ready to respond with direct action and stand in solidarity with those who are leading the fight, as well as support others in my community to actively do the same as well.