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Intentional Homeless Community Hopes Solar Panels Will Shield Them From Removal

Alice Woelfle
The neat arrangement of tents and solar panels advertise the ingenuity and organization of the camp.

For few generations now Berkeley has been home to alternative living arrangements like communes and co-ops. There’s a new intentional community keeping this tradition alive.

Here, no one’s in charge and decisions are made by consensus. This place is at the forefront of the housing crisis — in fact, it’s the reason the people here came together in the first place. 

It’s a beautiful sunny day in south Berkeley and Robin Silver is working on solar panels. He’s tidying up some loose cords, and securing the panels from theft. This solar system is a work in progress, it took a while to cobble together all the different components. 

“We just quintupled our power output here,” he says. “We were previously able to charge cell phones and laptops. Now we’ll be able to charge wheelchairs, kitchen appliances, all that kind of stuff.”

While he works he tells me about the diversity of his community. 

“I think this camp is a microcosm of the world’s social ills. We’re kind of the world in a teapot here. There are people here who have been millionaires, we have Phd’s, and people who have never read a book. It’s magical, traumatic, stressful.” He explains the challenges this creates.“There’s two different realities going on, one is the ideal that we’re a consensus, and the reality is who’s got the most moxie and will to get their way.”

But in spite of their diversity they all face one common challenge: Homelessness. Because of the housing crisis, homeless encampments are an increasingly common sight all over the Bay Area. This camp sits between the sidewalk and the curb on a busy stretch of Adeline avenue. Every few minutes passing BART trains interrupt conversation. It’s like BART has a pause button on their lives. Leslie Degen tells me its a sober camp. They also have a locked porta potty and weekly trash pickup. The camp has been in this spot for over a year. Leslie’s worried they’ll be asked to move. 

“I like this living situation here,” He says “It works for me. I’ve been wondering why we haven’t been served with an eviction notice. I been thinking about it every day.”

So why hasn’t the city moved them? I ask Matthai Chakko, the assistant to Berkeley’s city manager. “Our strategy around encampments is we prioritize based on health and safety concerns,” He says. “Over the past year I believe there were twenty times that we moved an encampment. The kinds of complaints we’ve seen in different parts of the city have included things like garbage, feces, needles, criminal behavior.” There are currently over 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley, up thirteen percent in the last two years. 

“We spend seventeen million dollars a year on a set of homeless services,” Matthai explains. “Over the past years we have tried to transition to more of our funding and focus to getting people housed, but it’s not enough.”

The money also goes toward mental health workers, a mobile crisis unit, and an outreach team that offers services to people on the street. Matthai says when camps are moved everyone is offered a voucher for a shelter, but many prefer to stay on the streets. If Leslie has to move he says he won’t take a shelter voucher either. 

“I tried the shelters and I was attacked twice. That’s how I lost quite a bit of my upper teeth.”But he has benefited from other services the city offers. He says he’s getting good medical treatment. 

“There’s a clinic not too far that throws out the net and helps catch people like me. I immediately began to respond to medication, I’m doing much better these days. The thought of returning back to the sidewalk, I don’t wanna do that.” 

He says his life is more stable than its been in years, which is why he hopes their camp doesn’t have to move. Robin Silver thinks the solar panels will help shield them from removal. 

“I think they are one of our biggest positive public relations visual symbols. I think they show organization and ingenuity. Along with the panels, we have the orderly arrangement of the tents, and keeping the camp clean.” I ask what might happen to the solar panels if the camp had to move?

“I view them as a sand painting, When I’m in my better moments, this can all be wiped away in a moment so don’t be attached, and that’s a big lesson for life, realizing the impermanence of all things and being okay with all that.”If they do have to move they will move as a community, and continue to look out for each other.

“Human beings are human beings regardless of economic and living situation.Treat everybody as sentient beings and see the light in everybody.”

He says if they can live together and solve their problems harmoniously, the rest of the world can too.