The Internet Rallies Around UC Berkeley Student on the Verge of Homelessness

Lead Photo: Creative Commons "UC Berkeley Campus Imageby Charlie Nguyen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Creative Commons "UC Berkeley Campus Imageby Charlie Nguyen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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Ismael Chamu wakes up with the sun, and within moments, he’s taking care of his younger siblings – one brother and two sisters – while also preparing for his challenging day at UC Berkeley. Chamu attends one of the country’s most elite schools, but he’s very much living on the margins. With his parents having fallen on hard times and being forced to live in their car, he’s providing shelter and food to his siblings. But on March 13, they will no longer have a home because Hayward has made living in residential trailers illegal. In a heartbreaking slice-of-life article on the Los Angeles Times, reporter Teresa Watanabe followed Chamu through a typical day, including his 90-minute commute from Hayward to school. With many sympathizing with his story, at least two crowdfunding campaigns have cropped up to get Chamu and his family the help they need.

Born in San Diego to an indigenous migrant worker from Guerrero, Mexico, Ismael’s used to constantly moving. Despite the toll it took on his life, he managed to succeed in school, becoming the first in his family to graduate high school and attend college. He nearly didn’t attend school, because he wanted to financially support his family, but his parents urged him to go.

He juggles a campus job, running a student club and his classes at school, while he also worries about how to feed his siblings. He and his brother make a combined $1,000 a month, which barely stretches enough to cover rent, transportation, food, and sewage pumping fees. He doesn’t qualify for food stamps, and he’s also spent most of a $20,000 school loan to make life easy for his family. It’s enough to wear on anyone, and though he’s mostly hustling, he does have moments when he breaks down. When heading to the campus food pantry, he tells Watanabe, “That place makes me sad. We have pretty portraits and murals talking about homelessness, but it doesn’t go away. I try to do the best I can, but I still don’t get ahead. You take one foot forward and a giant leap backwards. You can’t live off of that.”

Though some have criticized Chamu for getting in trouble with the law last year when he was charged with felony vandalism (which he denies and has plead not guilty), many have been moved by his story. A YouCaring campaign has raised more than $71,000 for the student. Donate here.