Homeless in Berkeley at 21: A Young Father's Story

"I just want to provide for my daughter. She's about to be five. I'm about to be 22. I'm an average guy, I guess. Just another statistic."

Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

BERKELEY, Calif.–During the day, the northern end of Telegraph Avenue is filled with students, street vendors, and panhandlers. Stay out late enough and the homeless among them are the only ones that remain. At 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, I approached several men of varying ages in the hope that they'd tell me their stories. As best I could tell, they were schizophrenic. There would be no conversations.

As a last attempt, I approached a skinny kid sitting on the steps of a corner building a few blocks away from the UC Berkeley campus. He looked forlorn and agreed to talk in exchange for a light, which I didn't have. He chose to tell his story anyway. If you've ever wondered how a straight white male without mental health issues might end up homeless on the streets of Berkeley at 21, or what he's thinking as people walk past without making eye contact, here's a lightly edited version of the story that one such young man told me:

"As Far as Me, I Was Born in San Francisco."

I've lived in the Bay Area my whole life, mostly in Richmond. I went to every high school in Richmond. I came out here to Berkeley when I was roughly sixteen. I met a girl, had a kid, a daughter, her name is L. She's about to be five now.

I'm kind of the average guy: struggling with providing, you know.

I got my GED, but I haven't gone to college or anything. I've had a few good jobs. I worked in the city at a market as a deli clerk, preparing sandwiches and other food. I just want to provide for my daughter. She's about to be five. I'm about to be 22. I'm an average guy, I guess. Just another statistic.

My mom died when I was 12 in a car accident that I was in. I stayed with my grandmother and my father. But my father was abusive physically, so eventually I ran away and was put in foster care. I struggled through high school, moving from school to school so much. I never was able to maintain grades or credits.

I was in three foster homes and the rest were group homes. There's like six individuals in each house. All males. A lot of stuff went on. You had a wide variety of kids that came through. Some were sexually confused. They didn't know what they liked. Me personally, I was always into girls, but there was always, like, a gay roommate that would try to ask you uncomfortable questions. And there were fights. Growing up in Richmond there was a lot of gang activity. A lot of violence. It's cleaned up, but it was the murder capital of the Bay Area.

"I've Had Hella Plans to Better Myself."

A photo of a street stand on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. The street is packed with bookstores, cafes, and other vendors. (Eric Risberg/AP)

I could care less about him. I know that when he was in his late teens or early twenties he was a professional bodybuilder. He did well in school, had various jobs, joined the marines, he was a marine corps sniper. And then he started studying science and immunology. He went to UCSF. He ended up getting a job in Hayward at laboratories that study different types of vegetables, how to genetically alter them to be immune to certain pests or weather or whatever, get higher yields, growing in different climates. That's enough about him.

When I was on my own, I started smoking weed early and that led to a lot of alcohol and parties with girls and whatnot. I've had a lot of difficulty in this area, as far as the people. I never went to Cal, I'm just a local, so as far as my acquaintances, they're people in the same boat as me, they kinda got the short end of the stick whatever they went through, family issues, whatever. I don't want to get into all my different relationships. But I want to be able to not beat myself up for my mistakes. You just gotta get over that stuff, you know, if you want to be a provider. I just love my daughter so much. And it's hard to provide. I don't have my own spot. I stay with baby-moms every once in a while, but me and her, we kind of have our resentments that we've already built. It's kinda hard to look around those, to communicate or even be with each other.

I do a variety of different things from little odd jobs for people, sometimes I slang a little herb, I just do what I can. There's a lot of shit that I don't let people know, that I wouldn't go out of my way to tell people, because of the way that they'd think of me.

I try to stay positive, I think of everybody as an equal, I just kind of keep that in mind. I don't do nothing hella drastic, you know, but there are times, once when I was struggling, kind of at rock bottom, you know, there were a couple of robberies and what not. But as far as lately, since I had my kid, she kinda bettered me, as far as what I think about life in general. And there's been times that I think about how long I can continue in this situation, and how to better myself.

I don't know.

A lot of people have resources, like family. Money from the government. Resources they've got that I don't have. I don't hold it against them. I don't hold it against myself. It is what it is. I just got to make do. Try to keep my head up and not do anything that would get me thrown behind bars for life, you know what I mean? I've had hella plans to better myself.

"Every Time I Get Out of Jail I Have a Plan."

A 1993 photo of a homeless man, Jess, on Telegraph Avenue (Eric Risberg/AP)

I just kinda stopped making them, because when you plan something and then you don't achieve it ... it hurts. When I was younger I always liked science. I kinda took after my dad. Maybe it was hereditary, because it was my favorite subject growing up and that's what he majored in. As far as a certain field, I wasn't ever really specific. I like animals. I grew up watching the Discovery Channel. I could name all the dinosaurs. I can identify a white egret or a clownfish. I never really got too far into it. As soon as I started going to high school things kinda changed.

I met a lot of people that smoked weed. Weed isn't bad as long as you can maintain, smoke socially. Not let it get the best of you. I don't know. I felt like I got cheated in my schooling. Just having to move all the time, I don't know.

As far as now?

I've always had ideas on where to start.

But I don't have a stable living environment or income. I don't get anything from the government. I've applied once and got denied and never really thought much about it after that. I see people that do, how they spend their money, blow it. Seems crazy to me.

As far as being presentable and maintaining good hygiene, with what I've got, I do better than most. And I feel like if I had what a lot of people have I would surpass them and be, not better than them, because I'm not better than anybody, but some of the choices they make ... I don't know. For me, to be able to take a shower and shave and stay presentable is hard work. For a lot of people, they can just go fill out job applications, follow up, talk to managers and end up with a job. As far as me, to follow up, I'm wearing the same outfit for a week straight. How would people look at me? That's my main struggle, as far as being able to put myself out there and live that lifestyle.

I make it other ways.

Money is an issue, of course, but as far as me and making money, I can make money easier than a lot of people. I don't know if they're just content with not having anything. I always try to achieve more as far as what I want in life ... Life's crazy.

A lot of people that I've seen, that I've been introduced to, that I grew up with, that I know, that I care for, I've seen a lot of people die, get arrested, not come back. I got a couple OG partners that have overdosed on drugs. Even younger friends that have gotten cancer. I've seen how it changes them. It's a touchy subject, people that you think are the toughest person in the world whittled down to nothing. Their last days. Even my grandma, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I don't know where she is now. It's been six or seven years since I've seen her and the last time she didn't even recognize me.

"My Daughter Is Older Than Her Auntie."

Telegraph Avenue in 1969 after riots at the nearby University of California campus (AP)

My dad just had another kid, my only sister. It's funny. But I don't get to see her much. I got three other brothers that stayed with my mom before she died in the car accident, but then they stayed with their dad. And they're out of state, so I don't get to see much of them. My other two brothers that used to visit my dad on the weekends, they stay in Albany. One brother is in the penitentiary, this is his second time back. He was out a year and went back for a residential burglary. So I don't get to see much of him. My other brother was overdosing off ecstacy all the time. I don't know where he's at with himself. But it is what it is. I can't tell him anything.

It's crazy seeing my daughter grow up from being born to her first steps. She started walking at 5 months. She was a pro-stumbler. She had these soft shoes because before they're a year you don't want any hard soles. She'd walk on the tile on the kitchen floor and slip on the tile but not fall. It was hella adorable. Her first couple words were mom and dad, and also tree and shoe. Now she's talking about everything. She goes to preschool. I pick her up occasionally and take her to my old lady's mom's house. I just do what I can. As far as maintaining an income to provide as much as I want, I struggle with that.

Luckily I have my old lady and a couple of other girls who care for me. But if I did get a job and needed to rely on them to help prepare myself to go to work, it would be difficult, you know. It would be stressful on me—I'd feel like I'd be causing them stress, sacrificing their time to help me out, so I just kinda cut it all short and not even put myself in that sort of position. And maybe one day, I will meet a girl that's the perfect somebody. She'll keep me in check or something, I don't know. As far as now, I'm just trying to live one day at a time, I guess.

My kid's mom is a good mom. Got her own job. Her own spot. Makes ends meet. And she's got resources, like family, that provide as best as they can, babysit and stuff. She's a wonderful mom. If it wasn't for her I don't know where we'd be. She definitely does her part. And as far as her holding anything against me, she doesn't. She definitely wants me to be there. But as far as us and our relationship? I can hope for the best but it's never going to be like it was. We don't hate each other or anything, though. I could call her up right now and just be like, hey, what's up? How's L____? Besides that I don't know.

When I left him, he seemed about as dejected as he had when we first started talking: older than his years in perspective, not yet emptied of a 21-year-old's ambitious yearning, but utterly out of ideas to improve his lot, and too proud or ashamed to seek help from people in his life, let alone strangers or government assistance.