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.