“Why don’t homeless people just get a job?”

Some time ago, I was driving in a car with a few friends to a restaurant for dinner. We stopped at a light, and saw a young man panhandling for money. One of my friends pointed at him and said, “Look at this guy. Why doesn’t he just get a job, instead of asking for money? He looks fine to work.”

I have heard this kind of comment before, in various forms. Comments that “homeless people are just lazy” or “homeless people just need to work hard.” As I said in a previous status, someone working a full-time job may still not be able to afford housing, because the rent is so high. But putting that aside, I wonder if my friend can see the whole picture.

  1. Does my friend have X-ray vision? Can he see whether the man has any physical disabilities? A person who doesn’t have any visually obvious disabilities may well be physically impaired and unable to work. Does my friend have eyes to see whether the man has osteoarthritis, chronic heart failure, or epilepsy?
  2. Does my friend have psychic powers? Can he see whether the man has any mental disabilities? Mental disabilities can be severely debilitating, and dramatically impair someone’s ability to work. Does my friend have eyes to see schizophrenia, clinical depression, or an intellectual disorder?
  3. Does my friend have superpower criminal justice eyes? Can he see whether the man has a criminal history that prevents him from getting a job? A felony record can follow a person for life, severely limiting opportunities. Does my friend have eyes to see whether the man has a felony record from a nonviolent drug crime committed 20 years ago that’s still shutting doors in his face, even if he hasn’t done anything wrong since then?

It’s easy to make assumptions about why people are experiencing homelessness. But there’s so many factors that are hidden from our view. The only way to understand people who are experiencing homelessness is to talk to them. Listen to them. Share space with them.

Why are people who work full time still homeless?

Berkeley has a large and visible population of people experiencing homelessness. Walk around Berkeley, and you’ll see tents and sleeping bags everywhere. Moreover, the number of people on the streets has been increasing. I left Berkeley for law school in 2013, and by the time I came back in 2016, I definitely noticed the change.

Sometimes people ask, “Why are these people living on the streets? Why aren’t they working?”

But let’s look at some basic math:

The average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Berkeley is $2100 a month.

Minimum wage in Berkeley is $13.25 an hour.

For a 40 hour workweek, that’s $2120 a month, before taxes. After taxes is closer to $1800. That $1800 must cover rent, utilities, food, clothing, and other expenses. But since the average rent for a one bedroom is $2100 a month, it’s really hard to find housing.

“But what about housing assistance?”

Berkeley does have Section 8 housing assistance. The wait list is currently closed. Last time it was open was in 2010. 39,000 people applied, and 1,500 people were accepted to the wait list. The wait list probably will stay closed for years.

People who are living on the street may well be working. But because of the sky high rent, they still may not be able to afford a place to live. The math just doesn’t work.

From A to Z: Sugar, Salt, and Toxic Masculinity

A: “Hey, have you heard of this concept of toxic masculinity?”
Z: “Oh, yeah, I have, but I’m not really sure what it means. I’ve seen on Facebook people talk about it. Some folks are like, ‘It’s when boys are told that they shouldn’t cry.’ But then I see other folks say that it’s trying to shame men for being men.”
A: “Yeah, I’ve seen that too. I’ve been thinking that people aren’t on the same page when they talk about it. I think it’s because of adjectives.”
Z: “Adjectives? What do you mean?”
A: “Well, when some people hear ‘toxic masculinity’, they think that people are linking the two together. It’s like saying ‘sweet sugar’. All sugar is inherently sweet. So in the same way, it sounds like ‘toxic masculinity’ is saying that all masculinity is inherently toxic.”
Z: “Huh, OK.”
A: “But I think other people are saying ‘toxic masculinity’ is a type of masculinity, different from other types. So it’s like ‘salt’. There’s many different kinds of salt. There’s table salt, bath salt, Epsom salt, road salt. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a salt. Salt of Saturn is a salt that can cause lead poisoning. If you use the wrong kind of salt in cooking, you can kill people.”
Z: “So you’re saying that when some people are saying ‘toxic masculinity’, they’re saying that not all expressions of masculinity are bad, but that some are?”
A: “Right. So there’s ‘toxic masculinity’, which is like ‘salt of Saturn’, and can poison people. But then there’s good kinds of salt, like table salt.”
Z: “In that case, when someone uses the phrase, ‘toxic masculinity’, what do they mean?”
A: “It really depends. Some may be saying that all expressions of masculinity are bad. Others may be saying that some, but not all, expressions of masculinity are bad, like those that lead to men sexually assaulting women. You can’t really tell which one someone is using unless you ask them what they mean.”
Z: “Then if someone uses the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, I should ask them ‘What do you mean by that?’ before reacting?”
A: “Yeah, I would say so. That’s generally a good idea in conversation, anyway.”

You. Me. Us

Let me share something that has helped me a lot:

In every relationship, there are three parts. You. Me. Us.

You and Me are separate from each other (yes I know that it’s “I” not “Me” in this tense but never mind that). We are independent of each other. We have our own lives apart from each other.

But Us is this third thing between You and Me. Us is the combination of our interactions, our history with each other, our communication patterns.

You and Me may be healthy, wonderful, mature people. But the Us between You and Me could have a lot of problems. It’s like Nutella and Sriracha. Both are good things that don’t work well together.

This idea of Us is important to remember if we get in conflict. Because if I say “I want to talk about Us”, you may think I’m saying “I have a problem with You.” Then when I share the problems I’m having with Us, you could think that I’m attacking You.

In conflict, You and Me can seem like we’re on opposite sides. But maybe we’re actually on the same side. Maybe both of us recognize that Us isn’t working, and we want to fix it. Hopefully, neither of us want a dysfunctional Us. Maybe we need to change how we do Us to make our lives as You and Me better.

So if I have a friend who takes up a lot of space in conversation, I don’t have to say, “You talk too much.” I can say “In our conversations, I would appreciate it if I had more space to talk.” This way, I share what I want to get out of Us, instead of blaming You.

I’m not saying that this approach works all the time. Sometimes there may really be an issue with You. But this approach has helped me navigate conflict well.

Mens rea and actus reus, and how to stop reading minds

One of the first concepts students learn in criminal law is about actus reus and mens rea. Actus reus is the physical action of the crime. For example, in a murder, the actus reus is the act of killing another person. Mens rea is the mental state of the accused. For example, murder requires the mens rea of prior intent to kill, whereas manslaughter requires no such mens rea. Two people could act with the same actus reus but be found guilty of two different crimes because they have different mens rea.
It’s really hard to prove that someone has the necessary mens rea for a crime. It’s really hard to know what someone else is thinking. You could get them to confess to their intent after the act. You could get a diary entry, or other statement from before the act. But it’s hard. This is why it’s tricky to prove murder beyond a reasonable doubt, because it’s hard to know what someone is thinking.
But the concepts of actus reus and mens rea doesn’t just apply in criminal law. They apply in ordinary life. It’s really hard for me to know someone else’s intent. I’m not a mind reader. I can’t know what the other person is thinking. I can guess, but it’s just a guess. The only way to know what someone is thinking is to ask them, and even then, they might not be telling the truth.
So when I relate to people, I ask myself two questions: (1) what is the actus reus I observe? (2) what are the possible mens rea that they may have? If someone ignores me, I can observe (1) they are ignoring me, and (2) it’s possible they don’t like me. But maybe they didn’t see me. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they just need some alone time. I then focus on the actus reus and how I will choose to respond, rather than the mens rea (which I really have no way of knowing).
This is why I don’t like it when people start ascribing intent to others. “You said X, but the real reason is because Y. The real reason you’re doing this is because you’re a racist. The real reason you said that is because you’re a bigot. The real reason you act this way is because you hate Christians.” It seems like folks are saying, “You claim X, but I know you. I know the secret things that you believe. What is really going on is Y.” Folks are claiming that they know the other person’s mens rea. Folks are claiming to be mind readers.
One phrase I learned from my counseling class is “What I’m making up about this is…” I can’t read another person’s mind, so when I claim to know another person’s intent, it’s really my own imagination. “What I’m making up about this is that you’re doing this because you’re a racist. What I’m making up about this is that you said that because you’re a bigot. What I’m making up about this is that you act this way because you hate Christians.” Maybe my imagination is correct. But I really have no way of knowing until you tell me what you’re thinking.
I find that it’s not productive to try to guess another person’s mens rea. I will ask them what they are thinking. If I can’t, I will focus on the actus reus and how I will choose to respond to it. “I don’t know if you intended to hurt me or not. What I observed was that you ignored me, and I felt hurt by that.”
So maybe it would be like this: “I am offended by your action because it bolsters the view that one race is superior to another. I am concerned by your comment because it has the effect of strengthening hateful speech. I am grieved because your activity communicates to me an animosity toward Christians.”
In short, I try to focus on responding to the actus reus that I can observe, and try not to worry about the mens rea that I cannot. I try to not read minds, because I’m not very good at that.

Is college like homeschooling?

A couple weeks ago, I reflected on the nature of safe spaces on university campuses, and my own safe space at the Christian Legal Society in my law school. I want to follow up with this idea about one facet of this discussion on free speech and safe spaces:
For most students, going off to college is their first time being homeschooled.
Most students who attended traditional schools had a separation between school and home life. In the morning, they would travel to a place where they would be exposed to differing and challenging perspectives. But in the evening, they would go home to a place of rest and respite. Of course, this isn’t true for all students in traditional schools. For too many students, home was not a place of sanctuary, but a place of danger. And the omnipresence of social media allows cyberbullying to creep into home life. But on the whole, students in traditional schools had a separation between school life and home life. In this way, their lives mirrored most working adults, for whom work was separated from home.
On the other hand, homeschooled students don’t have this separation. The same person that provides them with education also provides them with nurturing and discipline. While students can switch from “school mode” to “home mode”, it’s different than for students at traditional schools.
When college students arrive at a residential campus, they are faced with multiple messages. College is supposed to be a place to learn about interesting, challenging, and even painful ideas. But college is also supposed to be a place to grow as a person, to understand yourself, and to make lifelong friends. While these two impulses aren’t mutually exclusive, they can conflict. “University as Educator of Mind” doesn’t always align with “University as Nurturer of Self”.
It’s also true that some students feel more unfamiliar with their college spaces than others. For some students, it is harder to feel at home in college, because college is so different from home.
Students who ask for safe spaces can be criticized as trying to insulate themselves from the outside world. When they graduate, they will enter a work world that doesn’t have safe spaces. True enough, and I definitely disagree with the impulse to erect a bubble shield around the entire campus. But most working adults leave their jobs at the end of the shift and head home. Most people don’t live at work all day. Do college students have a similar place where they can rest?
Of course, all of this is armchair theorizing. I am not an educator or a psychologist, and I don’t have any empirical data. But I would be interested to know two things: (1) Do debates about free speech and safe spaces occur at the same level at a residential campus versus a commuter campus (at which students can leave school for home)? (2) Do homeschooled students have an easier time with the shift to a residential campus, given that they are accustomed to shifting between “school life” and “home life” in the same space? The latter question may be impossible to ask, since so many confounding factors exist, but worth pondering.
Oh, and some might find it weird to equate college with homeschooling. But you could substitute “boarding school” and the analogy still works.

Dim sum

Growing up, my family mostly ate Korean food. I grew up on kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodle soup), and bibimbap (rice mixed with different vegetables and meat). We didn’t eat a whole lot of meat, but we would have galbi or bulgogi on special occasions.
Korean food is familiar, comforting, and delicious. But because it is so familiar, it didn’t feel like a special occasion to eat Korean food. What did feel like a special occasion was dim sum. Every so often, we would go to the A&W Chinese Seafood Restaurant for dim sum. I loved ordering from the steam carts rolling around the restaurant.
When I came to Berkeley, I made more Chinese-American friends. On special occasions, we would go to Oakland Chinatown and get dim sum. I loved chatting out with my friends, sipping tea and ordering baskets of ha gow (shrimp dumplings), shumai, and sticky rice, and finishing with dan tat (egg tart).
When I passed the bar exam last November, I had a celebratory lunch with a few friends. Where did we go? A dim sum restaurant in Alameda.
Korean food will always be important to me. But dim sum will always mean celebration.

Safe space

In the past several years, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about “safe spaces” on university campuses. The phrase “safe spaces” has been given different definitions by different people (sometimes to further different political goals). At a baseline, a safe space is a place where people with similar perspectives can meet together. I have heard some express concern that “safe spaces” suffocate intellectual discourse and prevent students from engaging with differing worldviews.
It’s true that “safe space” can be mobilized to shut down diverging views. But it’s also important for students’ psychological well-being. Let me tell you about one of my safe spaces.
My law school had a chapter of the Christian Legal Society. CLS is a non-denominational fellowship of Christian law students, lawyers, and judges. Every Monday at lunch, CLS would hold a Bible study. We would get together, catch up, read the Bible, and pray. I really appreciated these Bible studies, as they gave me a place to connect with other Christian law students over our achievements and struggles. We turned to each other for prayer and support, especially in difficult times.
Did my involvement in CLS limit my ability to engage with differing worldviews? Not at all. I was happy to talk with people of all kinds of religious persuasions. But CLS gave me a place to rest and not worry about having to explain what I believe.
Did I need CLS at school to have a safe space? Not necessarily, but it was a huge help. I was part of a local church community with Christians who were not law students. But I found it helpful to have a space dedicated specifically for Christian law students. When I told people that I was frustrated with God because I didn’t get a job through OCI, the members of CLS knew what I meant.
Was CLS an exclusive place that didn’t allow for opposing views? Not necessarily. Non-Christians were always welcome to come in. But if someone came and started talking about how God is fake, Jesus never existed, and we are all fools for believing in Christianity, I would have asked that person to leave. It’s not that I was afraid of engaging with these questions. But that’s not what the CLS Bible study was about. I wanted to preserve that space for its intended purpose—supporting and encouraging other Christian law students.
Having CLS as a safe space helped me to get through law school. It helped me bring more of myself to the classroom, because I had a place to find rest at school.
I don’t think that “safe space” should be used to shut down inquiry and free speech. But I do want other students to have something like what I had with CLS: a place to let your guard down and feel at home.

Learning to have grace with myself

I had another tough interaction with someone today. This time, it was at volunteer event at a laundromat. Volunteers provide free laundry and food for people living on the streets. Unfortunately, the power went out while people were washing their clothes. Some folks had to leave with their wet clothes and try to dry them elsewhere.
People were understandably upset about the whole thing. One person in particular was irate. He went to get his wet clothes from the dryer and demanded that someone come with a flashlight (the lights were out in the laundromat). I ran over to help him. He muttered about how pissed off he was. I stood there silently, holding the light. After he got his clothes out of the dryer, I walked away. In retrospect, I would have wanted to stay and give him enough light to walk out of the building. But I was afraid of his angry words.
As I was biking home, I started questioning my motivations for my life. I say that I am an advocate for people living on the streets. But is that really true? Do I really care for people? Or am I trying to make myself seem like a better person? Because I think to myself that if I really did care, I would be doing so much more. I think to myself that I am a fraud, and that I should just be honest that I don’t actually care about people and go get a corporate job that would make me lots of money. But that line of thinking isn’t helpful.
I suppose every service provider and volunteer goes through this. As much as I focus my attention on serving those in need, I must recognize that there is a distance between us. I don’t know what it’s like to experience homelessness or severe mental illness. I want to remain humble about the role that I can play. I can’t solve all problems. But I can do something.
It’s also true that self-care is important, and that taking time to rest helps me to do my work for the long term. If I gave away all my stuff and went out to live on the streets myself, it would be harder to be an advocate for other people.
In any case, I pray that I would have greater compassion for others, and greater grace to not beat myself up for my mistakes. I am still learning, after all. Learning how to be a lawyer, how to be an advocate, and how to be a human.

Perceiving America

In law school, I took a seminar called “Slavery and its Aftermath”. It was a 12-person seminar that met five times through the year. Our two professors (Abebe and Huq) would assign us books to read on the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the resulting effects on race relations, housing, employment, and the criminal justice system.
In one session, we were discussing the lynching of African Americans in the South. One of my classmates had grandparents who had lived through that period and had family members who had been lynched. My classmate described how hearing these stories developed a complicated perception of the US as a place of both high ideals and painful history.
I thought about my own emotional response to the US. As a Korean-American, my experience of the US is shaped by my community. I’ve seen the US as Home and as Place of Opportunity. From my Korean perspective, I’ve seen the US as Protector and Economic Partner. Not all Koreans see the US that way, of course, but a majority of Koreans have a positive view of the US (according to 2015 data from the Pew Research Center).
By contrast, some of my friends may see the US as Military Aggressor, as Invading Force, as Economic Exploiter, and as Abductor. These perspectives are formed by their own experiences and the experiences of their communities.
As I’ve said before, you can’t tell people what to feel. Feelings don’t work that way. Some people may feel really positively about the US. Some may feel more conflicted, or negatively. I can’t tell people what to feel. But what I can do is try to understand the reasons that they are feeling that way. Even if I disagree with the reasons, I can at least know the underpinnings of those feelings.