Op-ed: Striking a balance for the homeless in Berkeley

I’ve been a resident of Berkeley for the last decade, and there is no doubt the homeless problem is getting worse, despite the best efforts of our elected officials.

Both of my elementary school-age children and I have been verbally and physically threatened in the last month walking to school or on our way to College Avenue. Neighbors have shared their frustration at leaving home in the morning and finding human feces in their driveway. Reports of aggressive behavior and semi-permanent campgrounds appearing in our parks are more widespread with each passing month.

However, there is some good news. Recent proposals by the Mayor and members of the City Council represent a big step forward in addressing the problem. The proposals under consideration include a clarification on the prohibition against urinating/defecating in public, as well as a requirement to maintain personal belongings in a space that does not obstruct our sidewalks. They also include solutions such as secure storage for one’s possessions, and access to bathrooms and showers. These are a reasonable first step in striking the balance between the need to provide services and solutions for the City’s homeless, and a desire to expect a minimum level of civil behavior in Berkeley.

Is it a perfect solution? Are the required bathrooms, storage and mobile shower units in place? No. But it is a start.

To those who oppose these measures as “criminalizing the homeless,” I suggest a more careful reading of the proposal. I would suggest that measures to prevent spreading belongings on the sidewalk in a manner that blocks safe passage, and using our parks and streets as public bathrooms — when both safe storage and bathrooms are available — is not criminalizing the homeless. The proposed measures explicitly state that these services be in place prior to enforcement, which should allow people on both sides of this argument to work together to deliver these services.

If there is a better solution, let’s hear it. We should all be open to realistic alternatives. One thing that we can all agree on is this: the current situation in Berkeley is getting worse. We are not providing needed services to Berkeley’s homeless, and our quality of life is deteriorating.

I urge my fellow citizens to attend Tuesday’s council meeting, support the proposal being considered and begin the dialogue of how we can address this important issue.

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Bill Williams has been a resident of Berkeley for ten years and is the parent of two students in the Berkeley Unified school system.