Has it gotten harder to be homeless in Berkeley?

New policies at the Berkeley Library prohibit bringing in items larger than 24 inches. One reader wondered if the change were related to the failure of Measure S to pass. Photo: Emilie Raguso

After the failure of Measure S to pass in November, we heard from one reader who said there seemed to have been harsher enforcement around town of violations related to homelessness. The reader said a homeless friend had been hassled by police when trying to sleep in a regular spot, and also wanted to know about new rules at the library that limit the size and type of items that can be brought inside.

The reader sent us an email in December detailing the changes, and asked Berkeleyside to learn more.

“Since the no-sit measure failed, the city has begun new, more aggressive treatment of the homeless. My homeless neighbor … has been told he could sleep in the doorway of a movie theater but last night, a cop rousted him from his dry, out-of-the-rain perch in the theater’s doorway. The cop said the theater could face stiff fines for giving [my neighbor] permission to sleep in their doorway on a rainy night.”

The reader continued: “Is this really who we want to be as a city?”

According to police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats, the Berkeley Police Department has not altered its general approach to the enforcement of violations associated with homeless residents.

“There has not been any new change in policy regarding our enforcement efforts after the failure of Measure S,” said Coats, via email, in December. “Officers have the discretion to enforce laws if needed.”

(She said she did not have details about the specific incident described above, as no additional information was available from the reader who contacted Berkeleyside about it.)

New rules at the library

The reader also noted a shift in policy at the Berkeley Public Library, with visitors — seemingly suddenly — forbidden from bringing in items larger than 24 inches.

“This new policy, which appeared overnight … is clearly targeted to keep homeless with their stuff out of the library. Um, if you are homeless, you have nowhere to leave your stuff.  I know that, for middle-class patrons, it can feel uncomfortable to be sitting at a library computer next to a guy who appears homeless and has some luggage with him. Geez, have compassion for that human being.”

Douglas Smith, deputy director at the Berkeley Public Library, said in December that the changes had not come out of the blue, and that library staff members were working with patrons to let them know about the changes and help come up with alternatives.

Smith said the library has rules of conduct that are regularly reviewed and updated. At the Nov. 14 meeting of the library board, members voted to approve the new rules. They went into effect Dec. 1. (See the agenda packet related to this item here.)

Smith said changes to the rules included now letting patrons charge phones and computers using library outlets, which previously had been forbidden, as well as the new limitation on the amount and type of items people can bring inside.

The rules now prohibit entering the library with containers or packages that, singly or collectively, exceed 16 inches by 18 inches by 24 inches. They also forbid leaving items unattended, blocking walkways, and entering the library “with items inappropriate to library use, including but not limited to bicycles, shopping carts, large trash bags, bedrolls, and strollers without children.”

Smith said that, since the last revision of the rules, three years back, there had been “an issue in some of our libraries of people coming in with large amounts of stuff in a variety of shapes and sizes. It does have an impact on other people’s ability to use the library comfortably.”

Unattended items can cause a range of problems, he said, adding that library staff had observed an increase in this behavior, especially at the central library in downtown Berkeley.

“It was at least a daily occurrence, usually more,” said Smith.

Some patrons had made a habit of leaving their possessions around, blocking access to collections and computers, and “walking away for the day,” he said. When items were left around the building, it also made it hard for staff to clear the building in a timely manner at the end of the day.

For the greater good

Smith said the library aims to be accessible to everyone, but that involves putting limits on conduct that might interfere with access to the facility.

“Our mission is to say ‘yes’ as much as possible, but we do have to make sure people follow the rules,” he said. “Part of our mission is to help create a space in the community where people want to come, where it can be a place for silent study, meeting with friends, using collections, using computers and getting information from librarians.”

Smith said Rules of Conduct policies like those adopted in November are “very common” for libraries in urban settings.

Penalties could range from receiving a copy of the written rules, for the first violation, to suspension of library privileges for up to a year, with the fourth violation. Suspensions would only result from more egregious offenses of the rules, such as fighting, Smith added.

He said, as of the first week of December, there had been “a couple of complaints” about the new rules, “but we’re working with people to try and get them alternatives.”

Smith said staff had tried to let patrons know about the new rules prior to Dec. 1 and was making efforts to be flexible as people learned about the changes.

Smith said he understood that the new rules would be a challenge for some patrons, but that they were necessary for the facility to work as a shared resource.

“A lot of businesses — and non-profits, government offices and other organizations — place these sorts of restrictions on what can happen inside their premises and what can be brought in,” he said. “It goes back to the full range of people we need to serve here, from babies to senior citizens, people from all social classes, and every facet of society.”

If something around town has you mystified, write to Berkeleyside at tips@berkeleyside.com (subject line: “Ask Berkeleyside”) and we’ll do our best to track down an answer.

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  • Incorrect assumption. Decent pensions for middle class workers able to actually live in the city where they work simply means that this money gets spent locally. They are also much more invested in their own community well-being. Drop the obsession, please…

  • The Sharkey

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but a hell of a lot of Berkeley City employees do not live in Berkeley. Besides, pensions have nothing to do with where one lives, otherwise no non-pensioners would live in Berkeley.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Our fire chief doesn’t live in Berkeley. Neither did Phil kamlarz. Both of them got excessive packages.

  • Another Berkeley Resident

    Why are we paying the library tax for a library that is used as a homeless center? The library should be a safe and welcoming place for children. However, to get to the children’s room, the children must walk on filthy sidewalks which may have feces upon occasion, pass by people hanging out in front of the library area smoking and may not be mentally stable, enter the library and walk up the stairs that may have spit on the steps–I have seen spittle on the stairs several times, pass by patrons that may be angrily yelling at each other, or randomly ranting, before they arrive in the children’s room.

    It seems like a waste of our taxes, which we work to pay, to have the library serve as a daytime drop-in center, perhaps we could better serve our community and homeless by locating a large drop-in center outside of the library where people could hangout all day.

    Perhaps it’s time we give some thought about our children’s well being, and not about being politically correct.

  • guest

    My children’s reading room is right where it belongs – in my home. Yes, they are allowed to read library books in there.

  • Howie Mencken

    “…didn’t the problems all start with the loyalty oath fiasco?”

    You’re referring to the fiasco started by this locally popular oath?:

    I pledge allegiance my pretentious street life victim-hood, and and the lack of serious problems in this little town which keeps me in the lime light.

    I accept the higher power of mangled 60’s slogans to assure the working fools keep funding my 3 squares and 1/5th a day.

  • Howie Mencken

    So the bums get the library and the kids stay home? That’s a compromise worthy of Worthington!

  • Another Berkeley Resident

    Some library staff found the situation of homeless people bringing in and storing large bags and many small bags and other belongings also created stress for the other patrons. Also, the areas where they were stored would absorb the odors. Have you noticed the library doesn’t have as much of a strong pungent odor, especially on the second floor, since the bag policy has been in effect? I vote and pay for the Berkeley library taxes because I believe in libraries, but the situation in the downtown library is outrageous, we pay for a library, not a daytime shelter. Have the City of Berkeley put money towards a daytime shelter instead of using the library to provide daytime shelter so that people wanting to use the library as a library can do so in a welcoming and safe way.

  • Beebus

    Go by people’s park or civic center park(s) after dark and you can watch the ground roil with vermin. Rats carry a plethora of diseases and bacteria, as do humans that don’t have access to regular showers & clean clothes.

  • Tzedek

    But, Tizzie, there is no discrimination when rules are equally applied to all users of that public place.


    Seems simple enough. These rules are the same for all library patrons.

  • Rita Wilson

    I don’t know where to add my comment, so I’m just doing it as a new comment. In the early 90s the BALIS (Bay Area Library and Information Services) people gave workshops to library staff on various subjects. They knew I’m a librarian and also knew I was a People’s Park advocate. They asked me to give a workshop on libraries and the homeless. I gathered up some extremely intelligent homeless people to give their views. Before I introduced them, my opening statement was “Some of us are one paycheck away from homelessness.” When we filled out our reviews of the workshop, I was told that the attendees said this was the best workshop they had ever attended, and gave them a totally different view on the homeless. Perhaps it’s time for another workshop on this subject to be given. In the discussion, one library staff member in the audience said he knows of a librarian who was homless at that time. One of the homeless speakers said how much he appreciated the storage areas in the main library for his items. (Do we still have them?) By the way, during the time I was active in People’s Park, I got to know well at least one person who would not stay in a shelter. I wonder if she’s still alive. (btw, if you’re wondering why I’m no longer a PP advocate, my husband died at that time and there were many changes I had to make. My views haven’t changed.)

  • tenjen

    Tizzie, I felt ugly. It was an ugly scene, and I had ugly feelings about it. As far as the child, I simply said, “Hey, let’s go get a snack and come back here in a little bit when they’ve opened.” I hope I didn’t pass on fear or loathing of any sort to her.

  • guest

    I go to the library several times a week, often with children in tow. I do not think that it has been “taken over” by anyone.

  • guest

    And meanwhile all these kids sleep on the streets. Are you getting a little of the picture here?

  • guest

    Sorry to confuse you. I only have MY kids, not all of the kids of all the families in town.

  • JW

    Transferring belongings on BART that are attended is different than filling the library with belongings that are unattended. Part of the issue is folks who claim a table or cover an area with their stuff and then leave it while they wander off. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if folks kept their stuff under their control, but they don’t. Undoubtedly their stuff is safer in the library than out on the street, but the BPL is not a storage locker.

  • The Sharkey

    When people say “homeless” in these comments, what they usually mean is “street people” – individuals who live full-time on the street panhandling, rather than the invisible homeless who are couch surfing, living in cars, etc.

    I don’t think anyone is accusing the library staff of being hostile to the homeless, they’re just changing the rules to keep people from bringing really big and unwieldy items into the library. But maybe a workshop like that would be good for the Downtown Ambassadors?

  • Completely_Serious


  • John Holland

    That was really mean, but really funny.

  • Erica_JS

    I agree. It is clear that some sort of day center for homeless people is needed, but there is no reason that the library should be that center.

  • Dr. Trent

    Truth is that “progressive” Berkeley sorely lags behind most states in providing adequate and 21st century services for their mentally ill. It’s a multi-layered problem. But there it is.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Almost certainly true. What compounds the problem further is that we seem to attract so many other cities’ mentally ill too.

  • anonymous

    Coming back to this story, where the comments were rife with hate speech against the homeless, I just have to point out: few raving lunatic homeless people enter the library and use the computers. Psychotics don’t go into the library to use computers, log on, type — they email family and friends, check the news. Most of the comments supporting banning some citizens from the library because they are homeless were bigotted, ugly and no different than any other kind of bigotry/racism. Just cause a race might not be involved doesn’t meant it aint hate speech, bigoted and unchristian.

  • EBGuy

    I’m not sure where the 24″x18″x12″ volume limitation came from. It does correspond nicely with the basket size on this foldable shopping cart.

  • galaxy_pie

    I’ve been punched, spit on, and harassed by mentally ill homeless people. Many of my female friends have also. I’ve occasionally felt unsafe walking to the theater in downtown Berkeley. I’ve had a mentally ill homeless person knock on my door claiming that I stole his home while I was alone with my babies. And I’ve had enough! After 17 years following the issue in San Francisco and Berkeley, I venture to say that the so-called homeless advocates also perpetuate this problem. They’ve come to see this as a personal freedom issue – a choice to live on the street. Everyone else in this country pushes out their mentally ill drug-addicted and they come here, so WE have to deal with the issues. You don’t see this problem in, say, Denmark, because they would be FORCED off the street. Sometimes, someone has to be forced into care, even if it means losing the freedom to do drugs or live on the streets. It would improve the quality of life in Berkeley. It’s very unfortunate that Measure S couldn’t pass.

  • Nick H

    It is not in the best interests of a community to be wantonly liberal. I have seen so many businesses close/with short shelf lives in downtown Berkeley over the past couple years. The collective physical and mental debris brought on by these mostly idle and foolish acting street kids are at least partially to blame. Do not confuse compassion with tolerance for “anything goes.” I don’t believe this is generally in the best interests of the non-homeless or the homeless. Do not feed the animals.

  • Nick H

    The homeless I see in Berkeley, are, for the most part, street punk kids who seem like they are intentionally running away from something, or towards a life of “infinite freedom” as that one poetic youth put it. I’ll wager a lot of them wouldn’t last long were they dropped somewhere less safe and tolerant of this kind of crap, around people with much more severe problems–people who actually have jobs, or looking for employment, with kids, trying to pay their rent amidst unstable environments–rather than than hanging out and jamming with their buddies/cruising towards escapism. Let them go to East Oakland or Richmond and see how “free” the street life is there.

  • warrior two

    Mental illness or instability.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Coming back to the story, the restrictions at issue are based on behavior. Someone whose conduct in a public space inhibits others’ enjoyment of that space is not welcome. Change the conduct and the welcome is re-extended. Hygiene is a dimension of conduct too, and if someone or someone’s possessions are unhygienic, they are not welcome. Clean that same person up at one of the free shelters and they can come right in.

    By way of analogy: even a first class passenger is not permitted to bring 7 carry on bags onto an aircraft and fill three overhead bins, nor is it bigotry to prohibit that.

    Whether a policy is “christian” or not is, in a strong field, the least compelling argument I’ve seen around here.

  • West Berkeley Neighbor

    Wow, is your back up! Anyone who dares to express that people who are *not* homeless have some rights and deserve respect is someone you are ready to attack. When someone spreads their belongings in a space, it means there’s no space for anyone else. If someone’s stuff is crowded under a table, there’s no room for anyone else’s legs, or chair. Not to mention that the cleanliness of items belonging to people with limited opportunities to clean themselves or their things is an issue. There are unpleasant odors, perhaps transferable dirt or pests. When someone doesn’t want to be in contact with these things, it doesn’t mean they don’t have compassion for the homeless or that they are trying to exercise more rights than the homeless person. The space is to be shared, and it can’t be if it’s taken up by stuff.

  • West Berkeley Neighbor

    Spurious, and you must know it.

  • West Berkeley Neighbor

    What kind of fantasy is it that the homeless are mostly people without substance abuse or mental illness issues? How many people choose homelessness when they are of completely sound mind and do not have substance abuse issues? You imply there are many. I disagree heartily.

  • quathy

    Why not have temporary locker space for free

  • StopCreatingDorners

    This is the kind of stuff that creates depression, loss of all hope and if not suicide, then most any other crime. Help and not hurt.

  • Guest

    What in the hell does this have to do with Dorner?

    Nothing, that’s what.