When he was on the street, Steven Miller, 42, used to sleep in a brick alcove just off Telegraph Avenue under an arcade. It's barely out of the wind, but it kept him separate from the area's other homeless, whom he said didn’t “share (his) goals.”
“I don't do drugs; I don't drink,” Miller said of his daily routine. “When I hit the goal I set, I pack up and go home.”
Each day, Miller sets a monetary goal to reach through "spare-changing,” or asking for money, often at his customary spot in front of Fatslice Pizza on Telegraph Avenue. The money he collects goes toward necessities like clothing and groceries for his restricted diet. Disability funding allows him to afford medical care and housing.
Kidney failure and a period of homelessness overturned Miller's life as a promising cook at Berkeley standbys like Looney's Smokehouse BBQ and Bobby G's Pizzeria. Miller grew up in Chicago, part of a restauranteur family with a strong cooking tradition. He moved to the East Bay in 2001 after winning a competition to attend culinary school.
After getting an associate's degree in culinary arts from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Miller began working all around the Bay Area — in Napa, San Francisco, Hayward and Berkeley.
“I knew about food culture in Berkeley,” Miller said. “If I was going to get my foot in the door, it would be through Berkeley.”
In 2009, Miller was working as a cook for Norwegian Cruise Line when high blood pressure led to kidney failure. Regular dialysis treatments became a necessity for survival, but the costs of paying out of pocket for treatment while waiting for health insurance approval were financially ruinous: Miller estimates that with dialysis, prescription costs and hospital stays, he was more than $80,000 in debt. One dialysis treatment costs about $2,000, three times a week, according to Miller.
Since his health insurance would not cover bills he had already accumulated, Miller ended up on the streets of Berkeley around People's Park, sleeping where he could and panhandling to survive. His failed kidneys made it impossible for him to stand for long periods of time, which made continued restaurant employment impossible to maintain. The particular diet required for someone with kidney failure makes buying and preparing food an additional hurdle.
"There's nothing enjoyable about sitting out here asking for change — it's embarrassing,” Miller said. “It takes a toll on your psyche, on your mental strength.”
With judicious use of aid programs like Berkeley Food and Housing Project and Richmond-based Rubicon Programs, Miller has now slowly managed to make his way off the street, paying off his medical debts and finding affordable housing in 2011. He still travels from his home in Albany to San Leandro by bus for regular dialysis treatments.
Still, Miller is hopeful when it comes to the future. Job interviews for part-time work where he can use his food industry skills occupy much of his time. He still depends on dialysis, but he's on a transplant list and has ambitions he seeks to achieve once he gets a functional kidney: Miller hopes to start a YouTube channel to teach viewers how to cook with the restricted diet of a dialysis patient.