The homeless man who is still homeless

Column: Could extreme heat be just what California needs to finally solve homelessness?

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The man sitting in front of me in a crowded restaurant is from a shelter that helps those who cannot afford their own place to stay. He’s in his 30s, and he was homeless before, so he knows what it’s like.

“Being homeless is like being drunk,” he told me. “If you get off the street and you’re sober, you can have some dignity.”

I’m here with James. He has lived in a tiny apartment for almost five months on the streets of Berkeley, Calif. He uses the phrase “getting off the street” because he isn’t sure if he will be able to keep that lifestyle when he gets home.

A day after I met him, I walked by his place and saw him covered in feces. I asked him if he needed shelter, or could get one? He told me yes – but in a way that suggested he was grateful for it. He said he was not surprised that he was still homeless – he had been homeless for four years – but he was surprised that after 30 years of being homeless, he was still homeless.

He’d been on the streets for so long that he didn’t think he would ever be able to afford a place to stay. His landlord kicked him out because he lived in his car. “If I’ve saved up $500,000 to rent my place, I’d expect a down payment. But I never saved up even a $100.”

James is not alone. According to the UC Berkeley Homeless Studies Center, California has the highest poverty rate of any state in the country, with 25 percent of the population on welfare or living on food stamps.

The state also has the highest number of homeless people, with 68,000 people living on the streets or in cars. Nearly half of them are chronically homeless or addicted to drugs, according to the center. A third require 24-hour care. The center found that homeless people are 30 times more likely to have mental illness.

James’ story isn’t uncommon. There are thousands upon thousands of people like him in California

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