By Marvin So

As Berkeley students, it’s easy to go about our daily lives rife with midterms, clubs, exercise, and maybe even social activities, and ignore the ubiquitous homeless individuals occupying the curbs and nooks of Telegraph. There are about 280 chronically homeless individuals living in Berkeley on any given night, along with 680 others who live in  streets, shelters, or transitional housing programs. Furthermore, due to the recent economic downturn, the Berkeley population of people living in temporary situations or close to being evicted has increased ten-fold. Much has been done by the City of Berkeley to support these individuals in accessing services and developing self-sufficiency, though it is by far insufficient to account for all people in the area experiencing homelessness.

The prevalence of homelessness in Berkeley provides an excellent illustration that there is not enough being done to mobilize action in light of an array of complex factors including income inequality, reduced government support for the poor, and decreased affordable housing units all over the country.

Examining homelessness from a public health perspective, a question of temporality arises. Does poor health contribute to being homeless, or does homelessness moreso contribute to ill health outcomes? Understanding the health issues of the homeless is a vastly important issue to consider, as reduced funds towards emergency departments means greatly reduced emergency care access for low-income individuals. Moreover, since low-income communities are more likely to require emergency care, trauma closures act to further exacerbate inequalities in health among the very poor.

Common health issues among homeless communities can include mental health problems, substance abuse problems, bronchitis/pneumonia, and skin infections. Conversely, a serious illness or debilitating disease can trigger a downward spiral from losing one’s job, to deterioration of savings to pay for treatment, and eventual eviction. Lack of access to affordable care results in minor issues turning into major disabilities; in turn, the tax burden of lack of access to care for these individuals is greater than if they were to receive primary or preventive services earlier on. This is the philosophy that operates many community-based clinics and organizations aiming to act as a safety net for people who cannot access services due to economic barriers.

Addressing homelessness offers public health professionals a key opportunity to address an enormous social determinant of health – lack of safe, adequate housing. If we can work, through service, advocacy, and policy to slowly erode the discrimination and barriers imposed upon the homeless, we can make impactful change towards more equitable health outcomes for all communities.

If you’re interested in learning more about homelessness, poverty, and social justice, UC Berkeley provides a variety of opportunities to do just that. Check out the following resources and find a program or organization that you like – it’s going to take an enormous effort to begin to solve a problem as multifactorial as homelessness. What better place to mobilize this grassroots movement at Cal, the mecca of impassioned students acting for social change? With this information, what will you do to make a difference in the community?

  1. Cal Corps Public Service Center, publicservice.berkeley.edu
  2. The Suitcase Clinic, suitcaseclinic.org
  3. The Berkeley Free Clinic,
  4. Cal Habitat for Humanity, habitat.berkeley.edu