Op-ed: Support the recommendations of the Homeless Task Force

Time and again, Berkeley voters have made it clear that they reject the criminalization of the homeless, many of whom are veterans suffering from mental trauma and LGBT youth kicked out of their homes because of who they love.

Do you think these people should be considered criminals simply for living in our community? I don’t. There are real solutions to get many of Berkeley’s homeless off the streets and on the road to a better life.

What some of my colleagues have proposed at tonight’s City Council meeting doesn’t include those solutions. It puts forward punitive measures that will criminalize the homeless, although it’s wrapped with a few paltry amenities to cover up the damage done. Let’s be clear: these measures will not solve the problems of behavior and homelessness on our streets, and taken in their entirety, they don’t get us closer to solving our homelessness crisis.

I am deeply concerned about problematic street behavior that threatens the comfort, well-being and safety of businesses and people in Downtown Berkeley. I am also deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis on our streets that homeless people face every day. Homeless people face a lack of shelter, mental health services, restrooms, and storage space. The lack of these basic services creates unlivable conditions both for the people on our streets, and the Berkeley residents who walk down those sidewalks. We have a big problem on our hands.

Since you the voters defeated Measure S in 2012, which would have further criminalized the homeless, I have been working tirelessly to address issues of street behavior and homelessness. In recognition of the conditions that led to Measure S being placed on the ballot, my office convened a Homeless Task Force, which has met continuously for the past two years. The Task Force has brought together homeless agencies, homeless people, faith leaders, business owners, and many Berkeleyans from all walks of life. We held many meetings to discuss the challenges of homelessness in our city, and out of this exhaustive consultation developed a proposal that speaks directly to the needs of the homeless while addressing |the underlying conditions leading to problematic behavior.

What resulted is a proposal I am introducing tonight asking our City Manager to implement the recommendations of the Homeless Task Force. The proposal would:

  • Provide for more storage space. We need at least 250 storage bins. The current proposed level of 100 is grossly insufficient to meet our needs.
  • Establish more public restrooms throughout our commercial districts, particularly restrooms open 24 hours.
  • Expand Homeless outreach and mental health outreach, both of which are seriously understaffed to address the need on our streets
  • Expand Crisis Intervention Training by our police to deal with people who have mental health issues
  • Create winter Warming Centers to get homeless people out of the cold and into a situation where counseling services can be provided.

The Task Force also proposed that Berkeley significantly expand the number of emergency shelter beds and permanent housing units, since there is not nearly enough shelter for the hundreds of people on our streets.

These approaches would help deal with the underlying conditions creating problematic behavior and help get people off our streets. For those individuals who still decide to break the law, the police should take enforcement action. These are real solutions.

Unfortunately, Item 28 on tonight’s City Council agenda, which proposes a series of new laws regulating behavior in public spaces, will not solve the underlying problems leading to problematic behavior.

Rather it uses a “leafblower” approach to deal with homelessness, putting forward laws that allow police to push homeless people off sidewalks and scatter them throughout the City. The idea that Item 28 will somehow result in homeless people magically disappearing is a fallacy.

To make matters worse, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recently added conditions for federal homeless funding that would penalize cities that have laws which criminalize the homeless. This could jeopardize needed funding for Berkeley and Alameda County.

Item 28 packages these new criminal laws with a few amenities, yet there are many flaws even in those services the proposal seeks to provide.

I absolutely think urination and defecation in public spaces is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. But the reality is that if you are homeless and there are no restrooms available, you may have no choice. Councilmember Maio’s previous version of these laws said that enforcement will not happen until the City provides public restrooms open 24 hours a day in the Downtown and Telegraph areas. The proposal on tonight’s agenda does not include this important qualification, and creates a catch-22 for people who need a restroom but don’t have access to one. It makes the inevitable consequences of human biology and poorly planned public policy a crime.

Also the proposal for more storage space is woefully inadequate. We absolutely need more storage space, but 50-100 storage bins is not enough for the roughly 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley and their many possessions. I think Berkeley residents want thoughtful, lasting policy solutions, not reactive measures. I think we can do better.

Some Councilmembers have made this a debate about law enforcement instead of services (an either/or choice). This is a totally false approach. We need a balance of services AND enforcement. This is not the time for political posturing but for real thoughtful solutions. We need a more holistic approach that involves enforcement, mental health, giving our police the resources they need to do their jobs, and housing.

I strongly encourage Berkeley residents to support the recommendations of the Homeless Task Force because they reflect the input of stakeholders (service providers, homeless people), reflect a two-year public process, and they are going to work. Let’s invest in real solutions that will improve our sidewalks and address homelessness, and not follow this hollow, mean-spirited approach. That’s not the Berkeley way.

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Jesse Arreguín represents District 4 on the Berkeley City Council.