Recently a mailer went out across Berkeley that puts a false ‘kinder, gentler’ spin on Measure S than actually lies at the heart of this ordinance. The language on the mailer sounds good, naturally. “Yes on S: Helps People. Saves Jobs.” A grand claim that warrants some fact-checking.
“Helps People”. Moving homeless people away from storefronts does not help them. Measure S will have “ambassadors who will conduct outreach to connect people to social services.” Homeless people by and large know what services are available. The majority already access services. For youth, those services have not included a safe indoor space to be during the day since 2004 when the youth center closed. Saying “move along” does not help engage people in services. What would? More street outreach… services that lead to a job with a livable wage or housing that is affordable if you are very poor… a place to be during the day. Measure S does not provide these things.
“Saves Jobs”. The mailer claims that businesses’ problems “are compounded by people encamping on sidewalks”. Not true. There are empty storefronts not just on Shattuck and Telegraph, but on Solano, College, 4th Street, and in other communities. In Walnut Creek, where my husband works, a wealthier community with no visible homelessness, there are many empty storefronts. Reality check: the economy is still bad. Plus, studies show that online retailers and big box stores have the biggest impact on local business. Don’t scapegoat people sitting on the sidewalk. Personally, I am doing fine compared to people who are really poor, yet I am poorer than I used to be and don’t shop as much. I don’t blame the kid and his dog drawing with chalk who I might have to step around. I’m more worried about my stagnant income and the fact that healthcare, insurance, food, and housing costs keep going up.
The mailer says opponents “offer no new solutions”, which is incomprehensible to those working in human services. Homeless advocates have, for years, called for more street outreach workers, incentives to get people engaged (housing vouchers, backpacks, bus tickets), safe drop-in space especially for youth (a need we recognize for housed youth, having created a beautiful facility downtown, the YMCA Teen Center), and public spaces where people can spend time. In Europe, public squares are part of public life, of livable cities — having places to congregate during the day. Yet in Berkeley, with sister cities around the world and a cosmopolitan self-image, public spaces are scant.
The mailer says that similar ordinances are working or being introduced in 60 cities. Actually, evidence shows they do not work. And to be overly simplistic for a moment, if those 60 cities jumped off a cliff, would Berkeley follow? The same kind of overreactions took shape as California Proposition 209, Nevada’s anti-immigration law, ‘domestic surveillance’, monitoring people’s library habits, and ending Affirmative Action at UC Berkeley. The City of Berkeley rightly spoke out against these measures, recognizing that legislation created out of frustration should not trample on civil rights.
The mailer said, “It is time to implement civil sidewalks for everyone”. However, uncivil, aggressive, or illegal behavior can already be cited. Sitting is not uncivil.
The mailer appeals to the good intentions of Berkeley voters by saying that “persons living on the street (and) our kids need our help”. Indeed. But Measure S is not help. It is an overreaction and unfair. It targets homeless people without providing new assistance. It is not the solution. And it is embarrassing for a compassionate, progressive city like Berkeley to believe its simplistic symbolism would actually address the problems of homeless people or fix businesses who are suffering in the bad economy.
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