At a special worksession Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council expressed interest in a raft of recommendations from an independent citizen panel related to how the city might change its approach to homelessness, but some officials said they remain unconvinced that the changes are something the city can afford.
The recommendations came from the Berkeley Homeless Task Force, which was initiated by Councilman Jesse Arreguín in 2013 after Measure S failed the prior November to win popular support, but sparked a broad community discussion about the city’s homeless. Since then, Arreguín said, the city’s homeless population appears to have grown, though official estimates won’t be available until fall.
“There is still clearly more we can do,” Arreguín said. “Berkeley can be a leader in ending homelessness.”
Read more about homelessness in Berkeley.
Tuesday night, Arreguín and Genevieve Wilson, one of the chairs of the panel, presented a series of recommendations for how the city might direct its funding in its efforts to end homelessness. They emphasized a “housing first” model, which they said has been endorsed by Alameda County and worked in other cities — ultimately leading to cost savings despite high initial start-up expenses.
The task force, led by Wilson and David Stegman, has been meeting monthly in subcommittees since it launched in August 2013. The first meeting was open to the public, with invitations sent out to over 100 stakeholders involved in efforts to fight or address homelessness. The task force is composed of volunteers, including service providers, homeless people, students, business owners and other members of the community.
Arreguín told council that the lack of identified funding to make the changes should not hold the city back from being bold in its approach to ending homelessness. He said the city should first adopt the new model, and then focus on finding ways to pay for it.
He said it might be possible to redirect some of the money raised downtown by the sales and business license taxes to help pay for more housing for the homeless, and that the city could investigate diverting money from the General Fund to that end.
Mayor Tom Bates said the task force had done important work by putting so much thought into the subject, but said the financial piece would be a critical one to figure out. He suggested that the city might be able to raise some money by extending parking meter hours until 8 p.m., which the city manager’s office is already looking into.
Bates also asked Arreguin to consider how the task force’s recommendations might fit in with the work of the Housing Crisis Resolution Center, a new effort created by the city to streamline homeless services offered in Berkeley. The Berkeley Food & Housing Project is set to launch that effort, with financial support from the city, in January.
Councilwoman Linda Maio noted that the “housing first” model appeared to have worked well in Salt Lake City, Utah, in large part because of the financial help available from the Mormon church. She also noted that Utah has more land available more cheaply than does Berkeley.
“We have a problem in that we don’t have a lot of land and places to build housing,” she said, pointing out that Salt Lake City has “a lot of vacancies in town.”
But Maio said she supported the idea of finding more permanent solutions than the city’s shelters currently offer.
“It’s important to have shelter beds, but people need homes,” she said. “A home feels like it belongs to you, that you can stay there permanently.”
Maio has proposed a separate measure approved preliminarily by the council in March to clarify laws to address some of the impacts of the homeless presence downtown. That issue is set to return to council Tuesday night.
Councilman Laurie Capitelli also supported the idea of homes rather than shelters, but noted that the process can take a long time: “From day one to the day we open the door is anywhere from four to seven years.”
(The city does currently have a proposal it is investigating to build housing for the homeless at what is now a parking lot on Berkeley Way.)
Capitelli and other officials said it would be important to work in conjunction with other cities in the region and also look at existing structures that might be available for housing the homeless.
“Without shelter, we don’t get very far,” Capitelli said. “But without resources we would be spinning our wheels.”
Councilman Darryl Moore encouraged the task force to work closely with Berkeley’s Housing Authority to find a way to lobby for more Section 8 housing vouchers to use in Berkeley. City Manager Christine Daniel told council that the subject of Section 8 housing is set to come before council during a special meeting July 16.
About 18 members of the public spoke to council about the topic of its approach to homelessness. Many advocated for more funding for local community services agencies, described the work of some of those programs, and said the city needs to do more to provide housing to the homeless, especially for transitional age youth, who are 16 to 24. Others spoke in favor of a suggestion related to better shower facilities for the homeless, and of taking a regional approach to addressing the needs.
Elliot Halpern, of the Berkeley/North East Bay Chapter of the ACLU, said the organization strongly supports the recommendations of the task force, particularly its suggestions for the creation of storage areas for the homeless and better public restrooms.
“These should have been implemented a long time ago,” he told council. “Try to implement what you can, and put in the resources to explore the rest.”
John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said he, too, is in favor of many of the suggestions put forward by the task force. He said the new Housing Crisis Resolution Center will help in figuring out the priorities for the city, as well.
But he said he had been disappointed by the task force’s recommendation to have the downtown Ambassadors — a program he helps oversee — focus exclusively on beautification and cleaning, rather than on interacting with the homeless.
The task force recommendation was likely prompted in large part by an assault on two homeless men earlier this year by an Ambassador who was later fired after reportedly lying to police about what took place. Caner said the association has since stepped up its training and screening processes, and created a way for the public to file complaints about Ambassador behavior.
One goal of the Ambassador program, Caner has said previously, is to help provide jobs for people working to get off the streets. The idea, its proponents say, is to have people interacting with the homeless who understand the challenges they face, and to have someone other than police officers who can help enforce the city’s laws and rules.
“We have 17 Ambassadors doing really good work,” he said, “and to not have them involved is a real shame.”
Moving forward from Tuesday’s report, Arreguín said he will next bring a proposal to council in September, which he hopes will come to a vote.
“The next step is to focus in on which recommendations we’re going to move forward with,” he said.
In the meantime, next Tuesday, June 30, council is scheduled to vote on amendments to the Berkeley Municipal Code to regulate behavior on city sidewalks.
The amendments stem from Maio’s proposal in March to clarify laws intended to minimize the effects of the homeless presence downtown. The amendments would make it unlawful to ask someone at a parking meter for help, regulate lying down in city-owned planters, prevent the use of bedding and mattresses on the streets between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. and prohibit urinating and defecating in public places.
That proposal has been criticized by advocates who say it will criminalize the homeless rather than help them.
Stay tuned to Berkeleyside for continuing coverage.
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Op-ed: In Berkeley, how much tolerance is too much? (03.23.15)
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Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)
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Francesca Paris, a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a Berkeleyside summer intern.