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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  • Not a big fan of Berkeley’s kneejerk political support for “lifestyle” homelessness. I understand that there are many with drug problems, family problems, employment problems — but I don’t believe we should subsidize the many that choose to free-ride on our public spaces, and as a result make them less welcoming for everybody else.

  • Bill N

    Could this be a reaction to the fire in the library bathroom late last year?

  • Berkeley Resident

    Since I volunteer at the downtown library, I can say, without reservation, that these new rules are very necessary. If the meaning of compassion, broadly defined, is “feeling or showing sympathy and concern for others” then this means all library patrons, not just the homeless. A recent situation at one of the branch libraries had a homeless man come in to use a computer, spread newspapers on chairs, tables, store his many belongings under the table and cause other patrons to have to leave the area. This is just one example. I welcome these new guidelines so that all citizens can once again use our libraries.

  • The Sharkey

    “This new policy, which appeared overnight … is clearly targeted to keep homeless with their stuff out of the library.”

    No, it’s clearly targeted to keep people of all sorts from bringing large bags or carts into the library, since such bags or carts can easily be used to smuggle books and other media out of the library.

    Changing the rules to forbid leaving items unattended, blocking walkways, and entering the library “with items inappropriate to library use” is just common sense. These are the same rules you have in virtually any other similar public space, or something like a BART station. Ignoring the security issue, library employees just don’t have the time to hunt down the owners of abandoned items or the space to store things until their owners come back for them later.

    I wonder who the whiny “anonymous reader” who sent them the letter is. These complaints are ridiculous.

  • EBGuy

    Just to be clear, with the current limits, you can still wheel a standard size carry on piece of luggage into the library (with room to spare). In fact, the maximum theoretical volume is more than the twice the size of a carry on piece of luggage.

  • guest

    Okay, i love the central library, but as a frequent mainstream visitor who has visited with many bags (and small children) sometimes… this has never been enforced on me… how will the library be ensuring this is not selectively enforced?
    Also, I wonder if a limit on obnoxious behavior is not more to the point…

  • guest

    >free ride on our public spaces
    >public spaces

    Where else do you expect them to go?
    Maybe a poorhouse?

  • The Sharkey

    The rules only went into effect in December, so it’s pretty new stuff. I might have taken things into the library that might have violated those rules in the past, but now that I know about the new rules I won’t do it in the future.

    If you really want to, you could try entering the library with items you know are in violation, and then complain to management about not being kicked out.

  • The Sharkey

    Maybe your house?

  • guest

    Lol, I probably won’t go that far, but I do think it is important to consider, at least theoretically.

    And if I do have a problem because, let’s say, as a pedestrian, I went to the Farmer’s Market first, and then the library, with my customary huge bag of books (does that count?)… I am going to be having some frustration myself.

    Maybe it will be selectively enforced in a good way… say on people who are behaving obnoxiously, homeless or not, but not on everyone who just needs to unobtrusively carry a bunch of stuff.

  • David D.

    I can’t speak to the library issue, as I haven’t been there since the new policy took effect, but I have NOT noticed an increase in other enforcement matters since the November election. In fact, enforcement of matters related to sleeping in doorways, aggressive panhandling, unleashed dogs, etc. seems to be very similar now to this time last year. This sounds like the case of a single individual who was upset when asked to move for violating an ordinance despite thinking he was above the law.

  • guest

    Oh, you are usually quicker on the draw than that, Sharkey: a house is not a public space.


    adj: of or concerning the people as a whole

    n: ordinary people in general: the community

    Now, if one has to have a house or a job to qualify as an ordinary person, what do we call these other people? sub-ordinary?

  • Shutter

    I sure hope its true.

  • EBGuy

    More than three (brown paper) shopping bags? Because under the rules, you could bring in three bags worth of stuff.

  • The Sharkey

    Oh, I thought we were just listing possible alternative places for them to go.
    Are all poorhouses completely public spaces? I thought you generally had to be, well, poor in order to live in one?

  • The Sharkey

    I saw an officer trying to move along some lifestyle homeless kids who were sleeping/smoking/whatever in a doorway at the library in the afternoon a month or two ago. The crew of regular enablers had clearly been spreading the word about the legality of incivility, because one of them was shrieking something incoherent about their rights to pile huge mounds of crap on the sidewalk and sit wherever they wanted. It must really suck to work for BPD and have to deal with this stuff.

  • guest

    (I would like to express my frustration at having to explain a simple conversation to someone who is clearly intelligent enough to follow the logic)

    That being said, here is a recap:
    Jacob Lynn said: “… I don’t believe we should subsidize the many that choose to free-ride on our public spaces, and as a result make them less welcoming for everybody else.”

    I responded wondering where he thought they should go, if being in PUBLIC spaces would be considered to be “getting a free ride”.
    I suggested a poorhouse, since the infamous poor laws in England set these up for unsightly freeloaders.
    (@ The Sharkey: If you have no problem with any and all people being in public spaces, then don’t worry your pretty little head: this conversation has nothing to do with you.)

  • The Sharkey

    Perhaps I was wrong, but it seemed to me like you were being pedantic in order to try to excuse incivility in public spaces.
    I don’t have a problem with anyone being in public spaces, as long as they meet certain agreed-upon levels of civility and don’t try to make the space less enjoyable for others, and that do not prevent the use of that space by others.

    Truth be told, the only reason I made the comment was that I really liked the way “poorhouse” and “your house” rhymed. :)

  • bingo


  • bingo

    Agreed. B-side either seems to really advocate for this position with all the “neutral” op-eds and so forth, or is really digging the high click rates and comments received when taking tendentious positions on this topic.

  • tenjen

    I will never forget the Sunday morning (a year or so ago) I arrived with my child a few minutes before the library was scheduled to open. Hanging out all around the front steps was a collection of destitute people–they looked like the walking dead. Then I saw the enormous human turd steaming by the front door. Left quickly with the kid, returning well after opening.

    Yes, we should have compassion for the homeless and mentally ill, but this is a huge social problem that interferes daily with quality of life in our town.

  • Biker 94703

    I’d be just as happy if BPD spent their time pulling over speeders on MLK. Either way it beats breaking up domestic disputes.

  • tenjen

    Where they “should” go is into affordable housing for those down on their luck, or (for those unable or too sick to cope) a hospital or mental care facility. Of course those were all defunded decades ago. A lot of homeless people who wish to get back on their feet are getting help from the Bay Area’s many, many service organizations. (It’s not perfect, but there is help available.) The people you see on the street are mostly (a) mentally ill and in need of care, or (b) minors who have run away from abusive situations, and also need care. Compassion does not mean ignoring or excusing antisocial behavior, though.

  • ornery today

    Is Berkeleyside stooping to using questions in its Headlines?
    Can a hyper-local blog cover a controversial topic with a declarative sentence?
    Do Question Headlines Raise journalistic ethics questions?

  • Guest

    Ban all bags! Everywhere in Berkeley.

    If you have to carry your things and stuff in bags,
    You have too much stuff and things.

    Stop shopping in my homeless encampment!

  • BBnet3000

    When a small minority takes over public spaces that are supposed to serve everyone, they are public space in name (and funding source) only.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Hard to drive a lot of page views with headlines like “Library Strives to Become More Pleasant for Ordinary Patrons” even if that’s the real story.

  • Roscoe

    Is this the kind of city we want be? Speaking for myself, yes it is.

  • A. Guest

    Don’t forget lifestyle homeless! we have those too!

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    We pondered using a declarative sentence but the story was about BOTH the library and police services so we couldn’t just say something like “Library Services Affect Homeless.” We discussed it and thought it was a gamble, but decided to try it and see what happened. Guess the response is mixed.

  • Howie Mencken

    Berkeley is almost ready to shed its ‘refugee camp’ persona. A little more struggling working class resentment and we’ll be there.

    And who will benefit? The “homeless” who are routinely enabled to death by sleeping for decades in doorways.

    And who will lose? Those whose sense of human kindness comes out of someone else’s pocket.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    The problem wih this story is that it could almost be an editorial. Characterizing enforcement of the law as “harsher” is opinion, not fact. The weight given to the inquiry you received is also odd – why is that so consequential? Becky O’Malley runs that sort of thing and it’s generally pretty low value. “Is this who we really want to be as a city?” Is not a journalistic question, but a rhetorical one. Clearly a lot of us disagree with the implied answer. The lede lies buried beneath all of this.

    I know, it’s easy to criticize from the cheap seats, but this is far from your best work IMO.

  • emraguso

    “Ask Berkeleyside” is a recurring feature where readers can send in questions about things they notice in Berkeley; we do our best to try to find an answer if we feel the topic may be of interest to a broader audience, or spark an interesting conversation.
    We’ve opted to use the question format in headlines for this column because each one seeks to answer specific reader questions.
    It’s not necessarily meant to be as in-depth as a traditional news story — but it’s a way for us to help people get answers to questions they wonder about while out and about. That’s our goal with this column, which is one type of coverage we provide in addition to a range of other types of posts.
    See the range of coverage here: http://www.berkeleyside.com/all-the-news

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I overlooked the Ask Berkeleyside category, which does explain the prominence given this person’s framing. Mea culpa. I continue to believe, however, that there is more opinion than straight reporting outside the quotes. Enforcement of law need not always be “harsh” – it can be “stronger” or simply “stepped up” both of which say the same thing without judging the motives.

  • The Sharkey

    I had similar questions and wondered why B’Side was running what seemed like an article that was based on an anonymous letter listing a bunch of weird complaints, so I read it again and noticed the text about “Ask Berkeleyside” at the end of the article.

    While I greatly prefer B’Side’s Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the hard news, editorial, and community interest pieces. Yes, there are header logos to distinguish the different categories, but they’re all the same size and the same color and pretty small. Maybe different colored backgrounds for the articles headlines on the main page or something?

  • The Sharkey

    I don’t see this article as “advocating” for either side. While they may be giving more credit than is due to the anonymous reader who wrote the complaint, they are pretty even-handed in their discussion of the topic.

  • M

    The rules of conduct in the library may be aimed partly at the homeless, but I do think they are reasonable and necessary. On many occasions I have seen grungy people sitting in the library sound asleep pretending to be reading a magazine or newspaper or using a computer. This is not an appropriate use of the library. Some of these people are so dirty and smelly that no one wants to sit near them. I think the needs of the people who work and pay taxes to support the library should be considered. If we make the library and everything else in our city more favorable to the homeless and pseudo-homeless, we just attract more and more of them.

  • Moxie

    So some people can’t bring tons of junk into the Library, who cares? It’s better than a Lice or potential Bed Bug infestation!

  • guest

    I do agree that certain standards of civility should be agreed upon. Absolutely. However, we should be careful that these are agreed upon by everyone, and are not too restrictive of personal freedom.

    For instance, most people in this society are opposed to nudity in public. I happen not to be, but I can respect that general “agreement” (law as well, I think)

    On the other hand, I cannot stand people talking loudly and obnoxiously on their cellphone in public. I do not advocate making a law against this, although I would support the library having a policy against it, as I think most people would.

    I have spoken to a man being abusive to his child and taunting him in public, and spoken up in similar situations that I felt were crossing the line of public civility… i guess I prefer this type of approach to lots of laws and policies, myself, when we are talking about issues of civility.
    absolutely see the need for law & policy for dangerous or threatening behavior, however.

  • guest

    @tenjen: I believe we are talking about people spending time in public places, not necessarily living there.

  • Chris J


  • Chris J

    In my admitted naivete about the homeless situation, it seems to me that some more…draconian measures might work, none of which could be considered politically correct. I always liked the idea of creating an area where homeless were given a home–provided seed, chickens, rabbits and trained to become subsistence farmers. I mean, it’s a crazyass notion, I know, but it would provide a place for folks who were willing to work to eat, who might not be really crazy, and then generally ‘prove’ themselves as contributing members of society.

    Better than a $$ handout twice a month or blind charity. Like I said…a silly idea.

  • guest1

    Would it possible and useful to have public facilities that would be akin to the rest stops that can be welcome and useful in a number of ways for those traveling on Interstate Highways?

  • Tizzielish

    If someone is homeless, where can they put their belongings and use the library? For some homeless, using the computer is the only tether to family and the world besides the doorways they sleep in and the charities that feed them.

    There are a very few lockeres available to homeless, but no where near enough and the lockers there are are inconvenient and far from downtown. The homeless beg downtown because that is where foot traffic is. No much point in panhandlilng on a residential block where no one walks by.

    I have a homeless friend with a 25″ duffle. He can no longer enter the library because his duffle bag is 25 inches long. He can’t just go out and buy a smaller duffle bag: he is destitute.

    This article is telling the city’s biased propaganda version of what is going on with homeless downtown. The homeless are being very heavily harassed, such as awakened by cops at three a.m. and forced to move even when the homeless person has a letter from the business giving him permission to sleep in its doorway. The cops are polite, express regret to be acting like assholes but they still act like assholes cause they are just doing their job.

    The library quotes here are official policy, not applied policy.

    Shame on library patrons who can’t accept sitting next to someone different than them. Shame on all of you villifying your less fortunate fellow humans.

  • Beebus

    Why don’t we just eat the rich & feed the poor!

  • guest

    Now we know who the one person was that triggered this non-story.

  • The Sharkey

    Why don’t you offer to store your friend’s duffel bag for him when he visits the Library, since you live less than a quarter of a mile from there?

  • EBGuy

    Wow, they went after someone with a 25″ duffel bag. Did they bring out a yardstick to measure it and determine it was one inch too long?

  • Mary

    I don’t see my comment from this morning posted, so I will post it again.
    The new library rules may be aimed partially at the homeless and pseudo-homeless, but I think they are reasonable and necessary. On many opccasions, I have seen grungy people sleeping in the library while pretending to be reading a magazine or newspaper or using a computer. This is not an appropriate use of the library. Some of those people are so dirty and smelly that no one wants to sit near them. I think that the people who work and pay taxes which fund the library have the right to use it. This attitude of tolerance in our city just continues to attract more and more of them.

  • Mary

    A poorhouse isn’t such a bad idea. Or maybe a rehab prgram.