Say yes on Measure S: help those living on the streets

By Davida Coady

Davida Coady MD MPH is Founder and Medical Director, Options Recovery Service

Earlier this month I spent several afternoons walking along Telegraph and then Shattuck Avenues because I wanted to talk one-on-one with the people, particularly the young people, who are sitting and lying on the streets panhandling.  I judged that almost all of them have serious alcohol and/or drug problems and many of them are also mentally ill.

As a medical doctor specializing in addiction treatment, I know that the people on our streets are at grave risk of becoming disabled or dying as a direct result of their drug use or from the medical complications of their use and lifestyle.  Deaths from overdoses of prescription opiates, heroin, and Methadone are rapidly rising, particularly in adolescents; and alcohol, methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses remain all too frequent.

With drug and alcohol abuse so prevalent on our streets, we know that we also have another serious problem – drug dealers promoting drugs to our high school, middle school, and even elementary school kids, many of whom frequent our downtown every day.

We may think this is just a problem in Berkeley, but it is also a situation that is broadly accelerating nationally.  In 2009, the CDC released a report stating that drugs now kill more people in our country than traffic accidents. The World Health Organization announced in 2011 that alcohol and alcohol-related causes are responsible for more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence.

There is some good news on the streets in Berkeley. In the past four years the Host Ambassadors working on Shattuck and Telegraph have persuaded dozens of street people to accept the services which are so readily available in Berkeley. Many of them are now clean and sober, housed, getting good medical and mental health care and leading productive lives. Through increased interaction and education regarding the new Civil Sidewalks ordinance, Measure S will make it much easier for these outreach workers to persuade often resistant people to accept services. It’s not easy work, but the Ambassadors are good at it and they know the services well, and they care deeply. They have already saved many lives. And, in rare case where citations are written, the City or the courts will waive citations for those entering services.

Earlier in my career I worked at Oakland Children’s Hospital in Urgent Care at night and on weekends. Much of what I saw there – the accidents, abuse, and long-overlooked medical conditions – was the direct result of parental substance abuse leading to abuse and/or neglect of the child. And then there were the overdoses and drug seeking behavior in the children and adolescents themselves. It was truly heartbreaking to witness the extraordinarily vulnerable children falling into the same pattern as their addicted parents.

This experience was the reason why I changed my specialty to addiction medicine after 30 years in pediatrics. I felt the biggest need was for treatment of substance abuse, which I have come to see as the major cause of homelessness, child abuse, domestic violence and other types of violence and crime.

I was born in Berkeley, live in Berkeley and work in Berkeley. I founded Options Recovery Services 15 years ago to serve Berkeley’s homeless and indigent community and provide an alternative to incarceration for people with addiction problems. At our downtown Berkeley facility we provide state-of-the-art substance abuse treatment. Options has its own mental health clinic and 140 beds of clean and sober transitional and permanent housing for clients and graduates of the program. To date, more than 6,000 people have received treatment and we have yet to turn anyone away. There is no waiting list – everyone is taken in immediately.

Measure S will help get people to our door and, thereby, save lives. The people on our streets need help, not handouts. Measure S will get desperately ill people into treatment, mostly with the help of our Ambassadors, who are trained to reach out to the street people and case manage them into services. Substance Abuse Treatment is free and immediately accessible in Berkeley to everyone.  Help us save lives by joining me and State Senator Loni Hancock in supporting Measure S, Berkeley Civil Sidewalks.

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  • Rob Wrenn

    Measure S has nothing whatever to do with provision of services to homeless, mentally ill or drug-adicted people.


    All it does is ban sitting except on “permanently affixed” public benches and bus stops.

    Ambassadors can do what they do to refer people to services regardless of whether the people are sitting down or not. The ordinance language does not even mention ambassadors, nor does it mandate that any attempt to offer access to services.

  • Rob Wrenn

    Today’s Daily Cal has an article about a report that looked at the results of sit-lie ordinances in five California cities. The report looked at retail sales a year after implementation in the five cities and found improvement in only one. The report also notes declining sales in all nine of Berkeley’s commercial districts since 2008, but Downtown Berkeley and Telegraph, which clearly have the highest proportion of people sitting down, outperformed the other areas.

    So not only does Measure S do nothing for the homeless, mentally ill, addicted, etc. but it’s not even likely that it will help local business.  It will probably pass. Measure O, the City’s first attempt at an anti-sitting measure, passed with 54% of the vote in 1994, losing in all five flatlands Council district but winning by big margins in the more affluent hills districts.

  • The Sharkey

    In case you hadn’t noticed, Rob, America has been in the middle of a recession.
    Downtown Berkeley and Telegraph were hit the least hard by the recession because they specialize in mid-priced goods and services and have the captive audience of the student population.

    Areas like 4th Street and Claremont were hit harder by the recession since they specialize in higher-priced luxury items, but now that the recession is waning both areas are bouncing back faster than downtown or Telegraph.

  • ridgebac

    Measure S is coercive yet there i nothing in present legislation to prevent Ambassadors form encouraging those with problems to obtain help. Perhaps if those on the streets were employed to help make changes we would see more rapid improvement. I understand that discomfort or even fear engendered by panhandlers, sidewalk loungers and others can be generated. Then answer lies not in rousting but in fostering self-help and cooperation.  A pilot program with a little money and lots of help could be put together to test whether a self-help program run by those on the streets could make a difference.

  • stanho

    Why not lock all bums and druggies up?

  • guest

    Coady tries to fit an addiction model on to every social problem.  She provides no data about what percentage of people currently sitting on Berkeley sidewalks are in need of the services her agency offers.   She stands to benefit financially from the passage of Measure S, as she admits: “Measure S will help get people to our door…” Many people on the street are mentally ill, not addicts.  Many of the young people have aged out of foster care but are not yet mature enough to take care of themselves adequately.  Many are homeless for economic reasons.  Measure S offers nothing to help any of these people.

  • anono

     Nonsense.  The rich are just as rich as they ever were–it’s the middle and bottom of the scale who have been hard hit by the recession. 

  • anon

    STOP IT!! Stop this bullsh*t spin that you are trying to help the homeless!!!
    You want to clean up the streets. Period. Okay. It makes sense. Let’s consider that seriously. But STOP pretending that this is out of compassion for homeless people. It is out of compassion for those that walk by them every day. 

  • Tzedek

    When caring for chronically-ill loved ones, caregivers are warned not to forget to take care of themselves, because, if the caregiver fails to care of his/her own needs, the caregiver will not be able to care for their chronically-ill loved one.

    It seems to me the situation on our community streets, streets clogged with those who choose to be “homeless,” those who anoint themselves as “travelers,”  “free-spirited,” “wayfarers,” lounging with their pitbulls and belongings, blocking sidewalks, harassing passers-by, “begging” in aggressive manners, and all-of-that.

    If our community does not care for itself, then our community will not be able to care for those who want to be cared for.