I’m walking down poorly-lit Bancroft on a late-evening stroll. Then, I pass by Urban Outfitters — it is 11pm, three hours after closing, yet the high-ceilinged lights are all lit up, illuminating the vast interior of cheaply-made and overpriced clothing.
On the storefront patio is a camp of young, long-haired, homeless men. They have made their place of rest for the night — duffle bags, overstuffed, and sleeping bags spread flat on the concrete floor. Behind them is a store-box of light, showing off the window-display mannequins and window decal. One of them advertises: UO Home.
In her Baby Cobra special, Ali Wong — a San Francisco native herself — shared a frustration: “That store Urban Outfitters has made things very confusing for my generation.” She joked, “You homeless or you a hipster? Is that beard for fashion or for warmth?”
Passing by, all I could do was chuckle and heartbreak at the irony.
This is not my first time living in Berkeley or the Bay Area. Yet, returning after a couple of years, the everyday juxtaposition of the haves versus have-nots, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley of my dreams versus the reality of displacement for so many, aches my heart. This is a place I love so much, where I want to call home and make a home — but, at what cost?
After my stroll, I spoke with my grandmother on the phone. “Is it safe?” She asked of the neighborhood where I walked. “Are there a lot of black people?”
I deflected and said, “There’re all kinds and colors of people here.”
The homeless aren’t just on the streets —they also live in cars, vans, RVs, and alternative, make-shift homes all over the Bay. Homeless, but making a home for themselves — or in some cases, for their families — on their own terms.
Meanwhile, I’ve made a temporary home here at Berkeley, working on my thesis research, trying to understand how people pay attention to culture at tech companies. One of the many voices in this culture discourse is about authenticity and belonging — bringing your whole self to work and finding belonging in a company that cares (or at the very least, wants to, and tries to). That sounds like home to me. What does it mean for all these tech companies to be invested in making homes at work — homes of purpose and communities of people — when having an actual home to return to is a precarious reality for so many?
A few nights later when I passed by Urban Outfitters, there was no one. Then, a few nights after that, I saw a woman curled up under her two blankets, fast asleep. She looked so tender I desperately wanted to take a picture, but didn’t.
How much I wanted to turn off the lights and say goodnight, but couldn’t.