30 years ago, there were no huge homeless encampments in Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco. Now, thousands of people live in them, and they are getting bigger all the time. A lot of people are baffled by this, but the explanation seems obvious to me. The number of extremely poor people in the U.S. has exploded over the past 30 years. The real inflation-adjusted income of the average American has been declining since the 1970s. The minimum wage adjusted for inflation has fallen by over 25% since 1970. For reasons that I don’t understand, very few people make a mental connection between the declining income of poor and middle class Americans and the rise in homelessness.
In 1960, the largest private employer in the United States was General Motors. The average non-managerial employee at GM made $25.00 an hour, adjusted for inflation. Like most unionized industrial workers of the time, GM employees also got a generous fringe benefits package.
Today, in 2017, the largest private employer in the United States is Walmart. The average non-managerial employee at Walmart makes $9.15 an hour, and with relatively few fringe benefits.
When I see people working at Starbucks and Walgreens here in Berkeley, I sometimes wonder: “Where do these people live?” These people make $11 to $14 an hour, and a 1 bedroom apartment in Berkeley costs $2,000 to $3,000 a month. So where do these people live? In a city where the average 1 bedroom apartment costs over $2,000 a month, where can a person who makes $13 an hour live besides a tent, a friend’s garage, or the back seat of a car? What I can’t understand is why so few politicians and TV commentators see any connection at all between rising poverty and rising homelessness. The connection seems very obvious to me. What am I missing?
$70 TO GET INTO YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK?
Here’s an example of how the lives of poor people are becoming even poorer in America. Our national parks were intended to be places that anyone could go to. The poor as well as the rich could visit a national park. Things were different in Europe, where the most beautiful places and scenic vistas were made royal estates, available only to aristocrats and their friends. Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that the price of admission to Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, and many other national parks will be going up from $25 now to $70 next year. This story didn’t get a lot of publicity, but I think it should have. For a lot of people, $70 is a lot of money. $70 is more than a whole day’s take-home pay for somebody working at minimum wage. Obviously, far fewer poor people will be able to go to a national park once it costs $70 to get in. I think that’s sad. Don’t you?
Last week, the Berkeley city council voted unanimously (9 to 0) to require that all marijuana stores in the city give free marijuana to the poor and homeless. The law requires that the marijuana that they give to homeless people must be of the same quality as the stuff they sell for cash. They can’t give homeless people second-rate marijuana.
A few days after the city council passed this law, I ran into one of the law’s sponsors on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. I asked him: “Have you considered requiring that supermarkets in Berkeley give free food to homeless people?” He looked at me like I was crazy and said: “No. Of course not. Why would we do that?” He didn’t see my point, and I didn’t try to explain it to him. My point was that homeless people need food a lot more than they need marijuana. What do you think?
This is a common problem here in Berkeley. A few weeks ago, I found a homeless man lying in my front yard. He appeared to be sleeping. This was not the first time that this has happened. What should you do if you find someone lying motionless in your yard, apparently asleep? It is sometimes hard to know what the right thing to do is. I never disturb or try to wake up a homeless person lying in my yard. I don’t know anything about this person. Most homeless people are harmless and try to avoid trouble with homeowners and entanglements with the authorities, but some homeless people are mentally ill, and some are violent. Also, this person could be sick or having some sort of medical emergency, like a heart attack. All homeless people wind up with serious medical problems. Living on the street is a very unhealthy way to live.
If you find someone sleeping in your yard, my advice is to wait a few minutes and then if the person is still there, call 911. The police will come out and talk to this person. If he needs medical attention, they will send for an ambulance. If he is OK, they will get him on his feet and ask him to leave. The police will not arrest someone for simply sleeping or lying down in your yard, so you don’t have to worry that you are going to get the person into trouble with the law.
There are a lot of homeless people living in Berkeley. It is impossible to know exactly how many, but estimates range from 800 to 1500. That’s a lot for a city with a population of just 100,000 people. There are many reasons why there are so many homeless people in Berkeley. Many people assume that it is because Berkeley is full of ‘bleeding heart liberals’, people who are more inclined than most Americans to give money and food to panhandlers. Well, Berkeley does have a lot of ‘bleeding heart liberals’, but that’s not the only reason. There is also the climate. We have very mild winters. Climate explains why there are a lot of homeless people in sunbelt states but very few in New England. Relatively few homeless people live on the streets of Detroit, despite that city’s widespread poverty. The reason is that most people couldn’t survive even a winter sleeping on the streets of Detroit.
Many years ago, I found a homeless woman sleeping on my front porch, blocking the stairs. I left her alone for a little while, but after an hour, I woke her up and asked her to leave. She flew into a rage and threatened me. She pointed to me, shook her finger, and yelled angrily: “I’m going to get a knife and shoot you with it, you bastard!” She gathered her stuff together and stormed off in a huff. I never saw her again. She was obviously mentally disturbed (and also confused as to how a knife works.) Since that experience, I no longer wake up sleeping homeless people.