Op-ed: Let’s share responsibility for welcoming sidewalks

Criminalizing homelessness is not a Berkeley value, nor is turning away those who have nowhere else to go. Sadly, unless more communities come to embrace our values, Berkeley will continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of the regional and national homelessness crisis. Unable to end homelessness on our own, how can Berkeley balance being a compassionate host with “house rules” that keep our city safe and livable?

The quality of our public spaces and the basic dignity of homeless individuals are both important. Since the rise of the automobile, sidewalks are the only part of the street where pedestrians have sole priority. Already busy, many sidewalks are hard pressed to also accommodate people reclining amid scattered bedding and possessions. Sidewalks should be clean, safe, enjoyable spaces where residents can walk, shop, and interact with their neighbors. We want people to feel welcome so they will support local businesses and visit public amenities, such as our libraries and parks. Yet, even preserving the essential functions of sidewalks can seem a poor justification for demanding that homeless individuals make impossible choices.

“People must take a modicum of responsibility for each other even if they have no ties.” Jane Jacobs, a champion of community-based urbanism, called this the first fundamental of successful city life. What do we do when an individual’s responsibility for their behavior collides with our collective responsibility, not only for their wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of the public spaces we all share? Berkeley continues to grapple with this question. We struggle toward shared responsibility in the face of woefully inadequate housing and services at both the regional and national levels. Many people understandably worry that Berkeley will follow in the footsteps of cities that have all but criminalized homelessness. Thankfully, this remains far from the case.

Although no perfect solution exists at the city level, Berkeley is poised to take a step in the right direction. As we seek to address residents’ understandable discomfort with the state of our sidewalks, we must continue to act with empathy for the homeless. More than any legislation that has preceded it, the Berkeley City Council’s new proposal to “Improve Conditions on Our Community Sidewalks” carefully balances Berkeley’s commitment to compassion and to well-maintained public spaces. The proposal is an expression of the shared “modicum of responsibility” that we expect from all users of our streets; and it requires the City to take its share of responsibility by making good on promises to provide new services.

The proposal before City Council is predicated on providing reasonable alternatives to individuals who might otherwise engage in behaviors that negatively impact our public commons. Anything less would indeed be unfair. The proposal would disallow spreading personal possessions across large areas of sidewalk, but only if the City fulfills its commitment to provide free, secure storage. It would prohibit urinating or defecating in public, but again, only if public restrooms are made available 24/7. The proposal is explicit that it would neither prohibit sitting on the sidewalk nor ban sleeping on the sidewalk overnight. Prior to any enforcement, the proposal requires not only the establishment of these key services, but extensive outreach to homeless individuals.

Berkeley cannot pretend that street behavior or the state of sidewalks do not matter; but neither can we remedy those problems by unjustly mistreating people who already have so little. The true solution to homelessness can come only from broad recognition of housing as a human right. But in the absence of a national or even regional commitment to house every single person, Berkeley’s policies must find a way to balance all of the things we value: clean, welcoming streets; prosperous local businesses; maximum provision of affordable housing; and, not least of all, dignity and fairness for all citizens. The City Council’s proposal to “Improve Conditions on Our Community Sidewalks” seeks to strike that balance, and it is time for us to take this incremental step forward.

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Eric Panzer is chairman of the Livable Berkeley Board of Directors.