Council battle brews over street behavior, homelessness

Mike Lee, right, a homeless activist, said during a demonstration Monday that he won't be pushed out of Berkeley on charges that make no sense. At left, Councilman Jesse Arreguin, and Michael Diehl, of B.O.S.S. center, another advocate for the homeless. Photo: Ted Friedman
Mike Lee, right, a homeless activist, said during a demonstration Monday he won’t be pushed out of Berkeley on charges that make no sense. From left, Councilman Jesse Arreguín and Michael Diehl, a longtime advocate for the homeless. Photo: Ted Friedman

Tuesday night, advocates for the homeless are set to duke it out with supporters of more stringent standards for behavior on Berkeley sidewalks over three items on the City Council agenda related to those living on the streets.

The item that has generated the most controversy, from Council members Linda Maio, Laurie Capitelli, Lori Droste and Mayor Tom Bates, prohibits going to the bathroom in public; limits the use of public space for the storage of personal items; and outlaws lying down inside planter beds or on planter walls.

Read more coverage of homelessness in Berkeley.

Advocates for the homeless have said the proposal will criminalize those on the street, who have few alternatives to their current behavior and need additional services, as well as assistance finding affordable housing. Advocates have been demonstrating since 6 a.m. Monday with a prayer circle, fasting and a “sleep out” in solidarity with the homeless Monday night. A rally and speak out is also planned for 6 p.m. Tuesday before the 7 p.m. council meeting at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.


Proponents of Item 28, to “Improve Conditions On Our Community Sidewalks,” say the city must act now to make the streets safer for everyone. The item does not outlaw sitting on the sidewalk during the day or sleeping on the sidewalk at night. Its supporters say the item creates a “few basic rules to set the standard for acceptable behavior.”

The item would direct the city to fund the purchase of 50-100 secure storage bins for the homeless, provide additional bathrooms on Telegraph Avenue and downtown — possibly in conjunction with BART, and provide mobile showers for public use. The bathrooms would be accessible 24/7. The new services are estimated to cost at least $300,000 annually.

The item would require public outreach and education before enforcement could begin, warnings to be issued prior to citations, and consideration by the city of whether to allocate more money to expand the hours for its transition-aged youth shelter.

“Berkeley will never be able to provide homes for all of the people who have become needy in our town,” according to the item. “The economic structure of this country is unjust, unfair, and cruel especially to those who have virtually nothing to fall back on or are too ill to care for themselves. As our social fabric erodes around us, literally on a daily basis, we must do everything we can to ensure we remain a humanitarian city and at the same time set a standard for acceptable behavior in our town.”

Left to right: Councilman Jesse Arreguin, Alejandro Soto-Vigil and Councilman Kriss Worthington at Old city Hall on Monday at a pre-council demonstration related to homelessness in Berkeley. Photo: Ted Friedman
Standing, from left to right: Councilman Jesse Arreguín, Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Stefan Elgstrand, Spencer Pritchard and Councilman Kriss Worthington at Old City Hall rallied Monday to support the homeless. Photo: Ted Friedman

More specifically, personal belongings on sidewalks or plazas would need to fit within 2 square feet from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. During the same period, shopping carts could only remain on a block for an hour before needing to be moved. Personal items would not be allowed to be “affixed to or placed on public fixtures including poles, bike racks (except bikes), planters, trees, tree guards, newspaper racks, parking meters and pay stations.” Neither would items be allowed in planters, tree wells or within 2 feet of a tree well “to enable tree care and to protect tree trunks.”


Advocates for the homeless say the “anti-homeless” rules are “draconian” and will only scapegoat those who need help. In a prepared statement, East Bay Housing Organizations Executive Director Gloria Bruce said the proposals don’t go far enough to provide services, and will cause too much harm.

“While the proposals include some amenities, creating further ground for law enforcement to cite and arrest people for behaviors related to homelessness fails to address the core of our city’s homelessness issues,” she said. “If passed, these policies will perpetuate the cycle of trauma and poverty for Berkeley’s homeless seniors, veterans, families and youth.”

According to a statement released by SAFE, the Streets Are For Everyone Coalition, “While the City cannot explicitly ban poor people or homelessness, it will outlaw actions that are symptomatic of these conditions.… This bill means a road deeper into poverty, a criminal record, and a bolstering of mass incarceration. For Berkeley, it means accelerating ethnic and social cleansing and the death of diversity.”

Community members say debris, including discarded needles, has become too common at Ohlone Park, despite the efforts of both city staff and local residents to pick it up. Photo: Courtesy of Councilwoman Linda Maio's office
Community members say debris, including discarded needles, has become too common at Ohlone Park, despite the efforts of both city staff and local residents to pick it up. Photo: Courtesy Councilwoman Linda Maio’s office

Maio has also put forward Item 27 (“Protecting our Parks from Unsafe, Unsanitary Conditions“) after a range of discussions with neighbors around Ohlone Park in her district in recent months. Neighbors have raised the alarm about nomad encampments, problematic behavior, violence and drug use at Ohlone, and asked for help to address the problem, which Maio describes as “highly antisocial behavior and unsanitary practices.”

In response, the item would increase nighttime enforcement of existing city laws by police; have the city’s Health Department cordon off areas of the park for decontamination if there are signs of hypodermic drug use or human feces; add signage stating park rules about camping and park hours; install covered trash receptacles; and consider the installation of additional porta-potties.


Councilman Capitelli, in an email supporting both measures, said there will be no enforcement of the property rules if storage containers are not provided. But he said it’s time for Berkeley to take a stand.

“The antisocial and criminal behavior that we have witnessed in the park and elsewhere in the City cannot continue unaddressed. A very small minority of bad actors congregate within our homeless groups both in the parks and along some commercial streets,” he wrote. “Many homeless persons who are connected to our outreach teams and receiving services have expressed an increased sense of danger on the street. Our staff and police report a worsening situation. We want to take care of people who have few options but at the same time we cannot ignore this situation.”

Earlier this year, according to the Berkeley Police Department, three individuals charged in October in the murders of a backpacker in San Francisco and a tantra yoga instructor in Marin County spent time in Berkeley and had contact with officers.

Maio walked through Ohlone Park with more than a dozen neighbors on a recent Saturday to identify problem areas in the park. In the background, a cluster of tents. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Councilwoman Linda Maio walked through Ohlone Park with more than a dozen neighbors Nov. 7 to identify problem areas in the park. In the background, a cluster of tents. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Council members Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington have both taken a stand against Items 27 and 28. The proposals, wrote Arreguín in a recent message to constituents, “suggest we put more laws on the books that criminalize the homeless and continue the cycle of poverty and trauma, which is not the answer.”

(Update, 1:40 p.m. Although Arreguín’s office has been helping organize opposition against both items, he said after publication Tuesday that he had, “after more review and discussion,” determined that the Ohlone Park item “is necessary,” after speaking with park neighbors, and now plans to vote in favor of that item.)

Arreguín has instead asked the city to put more resources into efforts to address homelessness, including “expanding the city’s Homeless Outreach Team and Mobile Crisis Team, increasing funding for the [police department’s] Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), increasing the number of public restrooms, and providing additional storage spaces and warming centers for the homeless population.” The recommendations came out of a Homeless Task Force community process organized by Arreguín in 2013.

According to his council item, the city currently has just one full-time position allocated for its Homeless Outreach Team, “which is too low to adequately handle the workload needed.” The city’s Mobile Crisis Team only operates from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and should be expanded, he says. (A 20-page draft report from the task force is attached to Arreguín’s item.)

In June, council members said they supported many of the ideas but were not sure how the city would be able to afford them.

Related:
Op-ed: Striking a balance for the homeless in Berkeley (11.16.15)
Op-ed: Let’s share responsibility for welcoming sidewalks (11.16.15)
Ohlone Park neighbors brainstorm about homeless influx (10.26.15)
Ohlone Park concerns prompt meeting Saturday (10.23.15)
IKEA donates ‘makeover’ to shelter for homeless families (08.27.15)
Berkeley council postpones street behavior proposal (07.01.15)
Berkeley open to proposals to end homelessness, but questions how to pay for them (06.24.15)
Op-ed: Religious leaders support compassionate services, housing for the homeless (06.22.15)
Berkeley authorities respond to fire near Ashby, I-80 (05.22.15)
Berkeley launches donation boxes for homeless people (05.08.15)
Berkeley council votes to curb impacts of homelessness (03.18.15)
Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)
Streamlined housing crisis center slated for Berkeley (10.01.14)
Homeless move to railroad tracks after Gilman ‘clean-up’ (07.30.14)
Rodents, trash prompt city clean-up of homeless camp on Gilman; residents ‘scattered’ (07.18.14)
City of Berkeley gives Gilman Street homeless a reprieve (07.10.14)
Caltrans fence forces homeless to find new camp (04.10.14)
Berkeley considers ‘visionary’ homeless housing project (09.11.13)
New talks on homelessness in Berkeley start Thursday (08.14.13)

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[Note: This article was clarified after publication to explain that, while the proposed ordinance does not itself provide funding, it directs the city to identify funding for the storage facility program.]