Opinion

Op-ed: Berkeley’s new homeless vote: A victory of style over substance

For a city that prides itself on substance on the issues of environment, free speech, locavore food politics, etc., Berkeley embarrassed itself Tuesday night on the substantive issue of caring for some of its neediest community members, opting for style over substance in the form of tidy sidewalks.

Tuesday night the Berkeley City Council rejected the will of Berkeley voters by resurrecting and moving forward with anti-homeless measures that were voted down in 2014 with the defeat of Measure S.

Though not identical in content, the new measures put forward by councilmembers Linda Maio and Jesse Arreguín (who removed himself from authorship at the last moment) at the behest of the Downtown Berkeley Association and voted into further action by Council vote are identical in tone and intent – ‘cleansing’ downtown with punitive measures towards homeless youth and adults who use public sidewalks to congregate and spend time. The measures prohibit sitting too close to or putting belonging in ‘tree wells’, using bedding on the sidewalk, or cooking on sidewalks.

The audience at the meeting was heavily opposed to the measures, from legal advocates to service and health providers to students and residents. But Council sided with business advocates. There are three questions Berkeleyans should ask about these measures. Will it work? How will we pay for it? Is it the right thing to do?

Will it work?

No. Speakers from Santa Cruz last night urged the city to reject the measures, saying it had been tried in their city and failed to accomplish its intent. People on the street will still be there, or they will move to adjacent neighborhoods, or they will come and go, evading punitive action. People are on the streets either because they feel they have nowhere else to go, or because they find a supportive community there that they have been unable to find elsewhere, and until you have felt truly and totally alone and unwanted, it is likely you cannot understand the magnetic power of a supportive community. We are social beings, all of us, and we will find ways to form those ties – with or without homes.

How will we pay for it?

Apparently, the plan is to pay for the measures with increased enforcement of parking citations (just when you thought the City couldn’t possibly issue more tickets…). Do you want your parking ticket money spent giving people on the street criminal records because they don’t have housing or have unmet mental health needs? Punitive measures and issuing citations to people who can’t afford to pay them is money down the drain and does nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. In fact, it makes things worse: multiple unpaid citations result in arrest warrants, which prohibit people’s ability to find jobs and housing.

Is it the right thing to do?

Nobody says it’s pleasant to walk by people sitting on the streets next to messy piles of belongings. But like it or not, being unpleasant or an eyesore – even a nosesore – is not a crime. And if the root of downtown’s problems is homelessness, the real solution is to end homelessness, not just attempt to hide it so increasing housing and service money is where our money should go.

Berkeley always says it spends a lot on homeless services already. Well, “a lot” is a nice measure but “a lot” does not mean “enough”. Obviously, the needs still outweigh our response – we need more housing that is affordable to the very poor, drop-in space for homeless youth, and skilled street outreach workers who can engage people who are on the streets because of unmet mental health needs and trauma. The Downtown Berkeley Association puts approximately 500 hours of Ambassador time on the sidewalks every week, giving directions and helping tourists. Is that really more important to us than helping needy and traumatized people change their lives? What if we put that much additional time every week into street outreach and helping people find affordable places to live?

I have been at BOSS for 28 years and it feels like déja vu all over again. BOSS formed in 1971 to provide street outreach and crisis intervention to homeless mentally ill individuals who had been released to the streets following state hospital closures. Since that time we have fought against “Not In My Back Yard” pushback on a regular basis – sometimes expressed by voter measure, and sometimes, like last night, by executive order. Essentially, City Council vetoed the voters. Only time will tell whether their overreach will stand up to whatever legal challenges and voter ramifications will follow. In the meantime, local human service organizations will continue their efforts to help people change their lives through compassionate, person-by-person assistance and support.

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Sonja Fitz is Development Director at Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS).