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Readers React: The Dickensian tale of a homeless UC Berkeley student and our jet-setting EPA chief

Ismael Chamu, who supports his two younger sisters, arrives at UC Berkeley, where he is a sociology major.
Ismael Chamu, who supports his two younger sisters, arrives at UC Berkeley, where he is a sociology major.
(Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: Seeing the adjoining stories on the front page of the March 11 print Los Angeles Times on UC Berkeley student Ismael Chamu, who faces homelessness along with his two younger sisters, and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s luxury travel and secretive rulemaking, one wonders if we are heading for a reality like Charles Dickens’ 19th century England.

Perhaps the squalor is not as bad, but there are a number of similarities. Our justice system resembles debtors’ prison in some communities, and homelessness is becoming too common. In comparison to Scrooge, it seems that no amount of supernatural intervention could make Pruitt redeemable. He deliberately tries to make life more difficult — and more toxic — for not just the poor, but for all of us, in this case undoing water safety rules and traveling in opulent comfort while families such as Chamu’s struggle with poverty.

This is the selfish, self-centered part of America that scoffs at the struggles of hardworking families such as Ismael’s, which mightily strive amid others’ wealth. Like a character in a Dickens novel, Chamu is striving to go from peasant to scholar in a society providing less hope for the vulnerable.

Jim Hoover, Huntington Beach

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To the editor: Being homeless as a student is nothing new. Even though the University of California system has been grappling with its housing problem for many years, there has not been enough progress.

When I went to UC Berkeley in the 1960s, a fellow student was getting ill so often from living in a tent in the Berkeley Hills that we secretly let him live beneath our rented house. It was a narrow space with a dirt floor on a slanted lot, but he made it comfortable, and at least he stayed dry.

He ended up a university professor in Canada, so maybe his struggle for a world-class education was worth it.

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Mary Nabours, Los Angeles

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To the editor: I do not cry easily. Yet I found myself sobbing uncontrollably upon finishing the article about Chamu and his family.

I am certain Chamu’s story is not unique. He is a university student, a brother at the same time he is a surrogate father while living so far out on the margin that he will soon be displaced from his heatless trailer.

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On the same front page of the paper was a story about EPA Administrator Pruitt and his taking further advantage of his position in President Trump’s Cabinet. As if that weren’t depressing enough, the same front page holds a ridiculous story about a Nevada brothel owner who brags he is so wealthy, he could not be bought if he were elected to office.

I had to stop reading, as my heart was broken not once, but three times.

Lynn Rabin, Altadena

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To the editor: Thank you so much for publishing the story of the young Berkeley student and his valiant attempts to raise his younger siblings while pursuing a degree in a demanding academic environment.

On the one hand, you’ve made us acquainted with a true hero. On the other, you’ve exposed the moral poverty of a society that permits such situations to exist.

The story also reminds this reader of the invaluable role to be played by a great newspaper, a newspaper prepared to devote resources to calling such hidden struggles to our attention and the space to telling the story fully.

Glenna Matthews, Laguna Beach

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To the editor: Reading the story of Chamu was truly inspiring. I pray he does not give up, no matter what.

I will send him a little check, as I am sure others will.

Priscilla Lazzara, Chula Vista

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