Kelly Nilsson is a UC Berkeley student from the wealthy, conservative suburbs of Orange County, and every Monday night, she spends a couple of hours washing the feet of Berkeley's homeless young.

The service is part of a youth clinic program run primarily by UC Berkeley undergrads near campus with funding from the university and other sources. It was there I met Nilsson, 19. She had just finished washing one young homeless man's feet using a tiny scrubbing brush with a rubber ducky on its top and a small square pink bar of soap.

''My mom thinks what I'm doing is gross,'' she said, ''but I really like doing it. I had no idea what other people's lives were like until I started volunteering here.''

No one is sure how the foot-washing started, but Ryan Houk, 20, a Cal student who helps coordinate the clinic, said he thought it probably started for religious reasons (in the Bible, Jesus washes his disciples' feet as a gesture of humility) but evolved into simply a nice thing to do for people who are out on their feet all day.

Nilsson said that at first the foot washing ''felt awkward. You don't know what to say. I didn't want to do it. But then I decided to challenge myself. I learned a lot of people want to talk. You'd be surprised by how much they want to tell you.''

Berkeley population of homeless youth is about 500 in a city of 110,000, but they're quite visible, begging downtown and up by the campus in shaggy packs, sleeping on the pavement.

One night, I met Miguel Angel deLeon, 30, who said the foot washing relaxed him and took his mind off the streets. He had brown hair and a long brown beard tied up in a beard ponytail. He wore a silky white paisley shirt over layers of other clothes. When I asked him why he found himself on the streets, he said: ''I lost my girl and my kids so what else is there?''

On another night, I met a 23-year-old guy who gave his name as Spencer. He wore black, a silver ring through his nose, a gigantic safety pin dangling from one of his belt loops. He said besides the obvious pleasure of having a beautiful woman like Cal student Birdie Nguyen wash his feet, the ritual made him feel homey and safe, the way you sometimes feel when you're taken care of as a little kid. ''It relaxes me completely. It makes me feel a lot better.''

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