written by Sonia (a volunteer with Consider The Homeless!) from an interview with James.
James and his three children, Khalid 18-years old, daughter Malika 14-years old and youngest son Malik 13-years old, arrived in Berkeley on Christmas Day 2014. They had been pushing shopping carts with all their worldly possessions and they had been walking for 2+ days from Union City. It was an exceptionally cold Christmas season – unusually so for this part of California renowned for its mild weather. It began to rain as they turned off San Pablo Avenue and started to make their weary way up University Avenue towards downtown Berkeley. This was proving to be a pretty miserable Christmas for James and his children.
James and his three children had lost their home in West Pittsburg-Bay Point when their landlord raised the rent and his wife left him. Physically disabled, James lives on his modest disability checks from SSI, but with the rent increase and the loss of his wife’s income, he could no longer feed the children and pay the rent. By the time they were evicted form their home in October 2014 the children’s mother was living and working in Union City, and she agreed to find and help them pay for a hotel room. They were all squashed together in the room, which cost them $400 a week, for two months.
A few days before Christmas, Khalid, Malika, & Malik’s mother told James that she could not, or would not, pay for the hotel room anymore. There was no way he could cover the rent on his SSI check alone, so James decided to take the children to the one place he remembered being happy, where he recalled that the city took care of its less fortunate residents, the City of Berkeley.
They had no money for a bus ride and no one to ask for a ride, so they started walking. James had only $20 in his pocket and that was soon used to pay for food. James and his family, pushing their shopping carts, must have made a surprising and shocking impression on the people they met along the way. Their walk to Berkeley turned into something akin to a pilgrimage with many good hearted and generous folks helping them along the way including two San Leandro police officers who were so concerned about their welfare that they paid for hot drinks from Starbucks, chocolate for the kids & coffee for James, and bought a 12-pack of tacos at Taco Bell for the family, out of their own pockets. But that was not all — one of the officers, Joey Bacon, told James to rest with his kids at the Starbucks and to let the kids eat, and that he would be back within the hour. Officer Bacon was as good as his word and he returned with four sleeping bags, and as he said goodbye he slipped James $100 and wished him god speed and a big hug.
It was now raining and the family set off again, fortified by the hot food and drinks. Unfortunately James got turned around and they took a wrong turn and ended up going in a big circle. Finally they bedded down for the night in a bus shelter. The children slept while James kept an eye on them and their carts.
As their journey resumed they met several more kind souls who gave them food or money and hugs. There was no pattern to their donors — they were young and old, men and women, black and white — compassion is truly a universal emotion. By the time they reached Oakland James had received about $300 from various kind benefactors.
It was now Christmas Eve and the weary family was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Oakland and James realized that it was dinnertime and all the shops had closed early for the holiday. What would they have to eat on Christmas Eve? They found an off-brand gas station, the only place open, and he gave the kids $60 to buy snacks at the station’s tiny store. They didn’t even have hot dogs. It looked as if Christmas Eve dinner was going to consist of potato chips, dorritos and sodas a.k.a. junk food.
As they approached the Oakland/Emeryville border someone saw them and brought them sandwiches and later, a large plate of Jambalaya appeared. Other people brought them platters of food from their own kitchens – moved to share their special Christmas Eve meal with this unfortunate homeless family.
After a few more adventures, James and his family arrived in downtown Berkeley and set up camp in the circle at Peace Wall Park opposite old City Hall. It was to be their “home” for another two+/- months. They soon fell into a routine of sorts and were befriended by the semi-permanent homeless population who sleep on the steps of the Veteran’s Building and/or in the park. Their new friends told them about where to find food, showers and other services and looked after the kids when James needed to go meetings with social workers or other appointments.
Berkeley was no longer the haven for the homeless that James remembered. The City had undergone a radical about turn and the police were regularly harassing the homeless in the park and moving them on and confiscating their possessions if they did not remove them fast enough. James and his family were often asked, politely, to move their belongings out of the park at night time. So James and his family did what the other homeless men and women do – they traipsed around the city, from park to park and bench to bench, trying to keep one step ahead of the police.
The family often enjoyed the hot soup and TLC offered by Barbara of Consider The Homeless!y on Thursday and Sunday nights. His new homeless friends told James to ask Barbara for help. He was desperate to get his family into a shelter of some sort so that he could enroll the children in the Berkeley public school system and they could continue their education.
In late January 2015 Barbara took James to meet Gwen Austen at Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS). It was the right place to go. The bureaucratic wheels started turning and Gwen gave Barbara and James instructions on how to get him and his family on the list for temporary supportive housing in Berkeley.
Meanwhile they had been sleeping for so long, in half sitting positions on concrete slabs in the park, that their feet had swollen and it was now painful to walk any distance. And try as hard as he might to stay awake and watch over the children and their possessions, James nodded off once from sheer exhaustion, and as he slept someone stole one of their precious sleeping bags. What a low blow!
In addition to the search for shelter James was also working hard to secure his right to food stamps and MediCal – both of which had been denied him on the grounds that he “earned too much”.
After much bureaucratic wrangling and dogged pursuits of various city personnel that are tasked with helping the homeless, and many visits to BOSS’s Multi Agency Service Center (MASC), James and his family were finally granted a coveted place at Harrison House — a supportive housing for families and a special unit, San Kofa, designed for single men and their children. They moved into their new home in February 2015.
Since then the children have enrolled in school and are doing extraordinarily well. Khalid graduated from Berkeley Tech in May and he is now attending summer school at Berkeley City College. Malika is also attending summer school at Berkeley City College and both Malika and Malik will be attending Berkeley High School next fall semester.
James keeps very busy looking for permanent housing for him and his family. They have the right to stay at the Harrison House complex for a total of 18-months and then they have to move into a permanent home of their own. James is very much looking forward to the day when they can have their own place. His main challenge is finding something within his budget. He very much wants to stay in Berkeley because the kids are happy in school here and besides he now has a new family to care for him and vice versa — the friends he made at Peace Wall Park. James regularly visits his homeless friends in downtown Berkeley and helps them out as he can with food and other items.
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