Op-ed: In Berkeley, how much tolerance is too much?

By Nora Isaacs

Nora Isaacs is a freelance writer, editor, and author.

In preparation for relocating to Berkeley five years ago, I arranged to pick up some moving boxes. It turns out, the couple giving me the boxes had just moved from Berkeley. When I asked why they left, they shared some nervous laughter and said something about getting out of there as quickly as they could. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to flee from Berkeley, a small city known for tolerance, fruit trees, beautiful weather, and a world-class university in it’s cozy midst.

Now that I’ve been here five years, I understand their covert glances. Once you look past those captivating Meyer lemon trees, Berkeley, it turns out, has an ugly underside. Yes, many of its citizens are engaged and civic-minded, and it’s certainly more diverse than many other cities in America. But for the most part, I don’t find Berkeley a particularly tolerant place. In fact, I find it a somewhat hostile environment, one where the pendulum of liberalism has swung so far that it oftentimes feels like I’m treading in unwelcoming waters.

The most recent debate about Measure S and the homeless on the sidewalks shows how liberalism can go awry. Unless you really aren’t paying attention, it’s pretty obvious that downtown Berkeley is a mess. The homeless have taken over the street. Many of them are rude, aggressive, menacing, and intimidating. I now completely avoid downtown and most parts of Telegraph, and from anecdotal evidence, so do many other residents. Why is it OK for homeless people in Berkeley to take over our city?

With the revival of Measure S, there is a chance to improve downtown, like dozens of cities across the country have done, by asking the city manager to review totally reasonable rules from people on the street: No panhandling near a parking pay station, no urination and defecation in the street, no cooking on the sidewalk, and no sleeping on sidewalks and the plaza during daytime hours.

Sounds reasonable, right? But I had to laugh (or I would cry out of frustration) at the name of the opposition, which has adopted the name “The Streets are for Everyone” Coalition (SAFE). Of course, in Berkeley, there is a group against a totally reasonable solution. What about the streets being for people who want to walk without smelling urine, human excrement, or feel threatened by aggressive humans and canines? It’s too much. When I go to other college towns: Burlington, Boulder, Santa Cruz, I see pedestrian areas where people can stroll and feel safe.

I am a compassionate person and believe the chronically homeless need and deserve shelter and services. I agree with some of Councilperson’s Arreguin’s ideas, such as hiring additional Homeless Outreach staff, increasing the days and hours of the Mobile Crisis Unit, and providing rental subsidies for chronically homeless-age transitional youth. But we could put all of these programs into place and more, and it would never be enough. That’s because Berkeley’s reputation for permissiveness has led to homeless people migrate here in large numbers. Right now, there is no realistic way we can support the disproportionate number of homeless people who come here — nor should one city have to bear a burden that should be spread throughout the state and country.

I’m glad that the City Council has voted to flesh out and clarify laws designed to clean up downtown. Once this is done, perhaps we can reasonably address finding the chronically homeless and mentally ill who live in our community the housing and support they need.

As any parent knows, permissiveness has its price. You can’t let your child cross the street without looking both ways; they might get hit. You can’t reward them with a cookie after they have a tantrum; they will learn that if they have a fit, they will get their way. In the same way, we can’t be so permissive that our community breaks down.

In the 60s, Berkeley’s liberalism had a cause: It created much-needed change and served as a catalyst for social justice. But now Berkeley’s liberalism has no cause, it’s just liberalism for its own sake. And it’s more than just the homeless issue: At BUSD, any attempt at getting an advanced learner extra challenge, or to address enrollment fraud, is looked at as a sure harbinger of “inequity” and simply not addressed. Tolerance without limits has many societal costs: At the Christmas Tree lightening last year, where there were dozens of children trying to enjoy the festivities, the entire area smelled like pot and the powerless downtown Berkeley ambassadors said there was nothing they could do. I can’t imagine another world-class city that would allow this at a family event.

So for now we get to be known as the home of Chez Panisse, the free speech movement, the soda tax, pot for the homeless. And those Meyer lemon trees. But tolerance? I honestly haven’t found tolerance here. The pendulum has swung so far that it threatens to knock out the foundation from under us. I think Berkeley can do better.

Read more about homelessness in Berkeley in past Berkeleyside coverage.

Related:
Op-ed: Berkeley’s new homeless vote: A victory of style over substance (03.19.15)
Berkeley council votes to curb impacts of homelessness (03.18.15)
Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Email submissions to editors@berkeleyside.com. The recommended length is 500-800 words. Please include your name and a one-line bio that includes full, relevant disclosures. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.