Michael Lee started living on the streets of San Francisco last May. He had traveled to the city from Las Vegas to seek medical treatment. When he arrived, he searched for cheap, temporary housing in some of San Francisco's most affordable neighborhoods, but he had seriously underestimated the cost of living in the nation's most expensive city.
"I was under the impression the rent was $300 a month, and I brought the resources for sixty days," he said in an interview. "I was going to go back to Las Vegas afterwards ... . But the first place I walked into, they told me it was $300 a week. The next was $400 a week, and then $500. People were laughing at me — $300 a week is actually cheap on Skid Row. So I wound up living on the streets."
Lee soon heard of a large encampment in Berkeley that activists had set up to protest the US Postal Service's controversial plan to sell Berkeley's historic downtown post office building. The plan sparked fierce opposition in Berkeley, not only from homeless people, but also from progressive activists and the city's elected leadership. Lee decided to move across the bay and join the protest and quickly became a leader of the Berkeley encampment. He advocated for a plan to transform the old post office building into a community resource: "A homeless contact center run by homeless people," he said.
"Why [were] homeless people the main defenders?" Lee asked rhetorically, referring to the post office. "Without community resources we can't get a hand up. There's just no place to go. This is where we live, unfortunately — on the sidewalks. We don't want to live in a community where private developers, the One Percenters, have everything.
"We're not going to be homeless forever," Lee continued. "Eventually, we will recover from homelessness because we're pretty determined individuals. That's something that people with houses truly need to understand. We are going to be rejoining the community."
After a federal judge granted the City of Berkeley's request for a temporary restraining order to block the US Postal Service's planned sale of the downtown post office, the USPS announced that it was shelving its plans to sell the building. Several months later, some of the people in the post office camp set up a larger homeless encampment, which became known as "Liberty City" or "Liberty Village." They established this camp on the lawn in front of old City Hall, a block away, to protest a new city council plan to enact stricter rules targeting homeless people. During the holidays, the City of Berkeley cleared out Liberty City, and the homeless people who had been part of it scattered to other spots in the city and to locations throughout the Bay Area. But the post office camp, now more than four hundred days old, still remains.
Over the years, Berkeley, like most liberal communities, has been comfortable with the idea of the homeless being victims. But many Berkeley residents and business owners grow uneasy when homeless people organize and use the creative tactics of the labor and civil rights movements.
Last year, Berkeley's homeless people did just that. They created what they called, "intentional communities" or "occupations," like Liberty City and the post office camp, not just as a protest tactic, but also as places where they could gain more control over their lives and implement their own ideas for dealing with homelessness.
Many drew on previous experience in other movements. "A lot of us are older activists," Lee explained. "Our ideas come out of the 1960s, and even before, from the 1930s. Homeless people have always formed communities, whether we were considered hoboes or homeless people or just bums. Hobo jungles were intentional communities, too, based on an unconscious understanding of the need for mutual aid and voluntary cooperation."
During an interview while Liberty City was still operating, Lee said, "People police themselves. I see people out there in the middle of the night with flashlights picking up trash. I see them chase off anti-social elements. If you want to talk about the solution to homelessness, all you have to do is walk down to Berkeley City Hall and the post office. Is it a perfect solution? No. Housing is the permanent solution to homelessness. But this is a helluva good start."
City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who is running for mayor this year, said he thinks the residents of Liberty City did a good job of keeping it safe and well-run. "Liberty City shows that homeless people can create a community," he said. But he cautioned that such communities can't "be completely removed from the city. There should be an ongoing city presence, that might include homeless outreach staff, mental health workers, or others."
Nearly everyone agrees that the answer to homelessness is permanent housing. But the state and federal governments do not provide the funding needed to build permanent housing for homeless people. In fact, over the decades, national policies have eliminated housing for poor people and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Local governments provide homeless shelters and services, but they are unable to meet the needs of the huge number of people living on the streets. Berkeley alone has 1,200 homeless residents, according to city officials. Further, many homeless people don't like shelters, because they can't bring their pets, or because most shelters require you to be inside by a certain hour in the evening and to leave during the day.