Berkeley imposes new laws on homeless behavior

At 10:30 pm, dozens of people were still lined up to address the city council about proposed homeless laws. The testimony went on until around midnight. Council adjourned at 12:40 a.m. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
At 10:30 pm on Tuesday, dozens of people were still lined up to address council about proposed street behavior laws. The meeting had begun at 7 p.m. Testimony went on until around midnight and council adjourned at 12:40 a.m. Wednesday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The Berkeley City Council passed a series of measures early Wednesday morning to address issues raised by the behavior of some members of the homeless population, including a new rule that will limit the amount of space on which people can spread their stuff on the sidewalk.

Under the new law — which won’t go into effect immediately — people on sidewalks or plazas will have to confine their belongings to a 2-by-2-foot area between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. This does not include cushions or dogs.

To make this work, council pledged to provide convenient and secure storage bins in which homeless people can store their possessions. The new rules will kick in only after the city installs the bins. Berkeley has not yet determined where they might go and how many there will be, although there will be 50 to 100 to start.

Homeless advocates sleep in sleeping bags overnight in front of old City Hall to protest proposed measures which they say will make life more difficult for the homeless, in Berkeley, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. The temperature was to drop to 46 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Homeless advocates slept in sleeping bags overnight on Monday Nov. 16 in front of old City Hall to protest proposed measures which they say will make life more difficult for the homeless, in Berkeley. Photo, taken early in the morning on Tuesday Nov. 17, by David Yee

The new laws also ban urinating and defecating in public and lying in planters or on their rims. People with shopping carts will only be allowed to leave them in one place for an hour at a time, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m, among other regulations. The new laws are estimated to cost about $300,000 a year to implement. Council has not yet indicated from where the money will come.


To minimize the chance that homeless people will get a citation they can’t pay, and then see their fines escalate substantially, the council, on a suggestion made by Councilman Kriss Worthington, voted for the citations to be infractions, not misdemeanors. The city will also make sure there are bathrooms downtown that are open 24 hours a day, an option not currently available, according to many who testified Tuesday night. The city will also strive to provide public showers.

Read more coverage of homelessness in Berkeley.

Council members Linda Maio, Lori Droste and Laurie Capitelli, as well as Mayor Tom Bates, co-sponsored the new laws.

Council voted 6-3 to adopt the regulations around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday after listening to four hours of testimony by dozens of citizens. The three dissenting votes came from Worthington, Max Anderson and Jesse Arreguín.

In the video below, Carol Denney, a veteran activist of social justice movements, demonstrates what the 4-square-foot space people will be allowed to occupy on sidewalks would look like.

Council also voted 7-0, with Anderson abstaining, for a “Protect Our Parks” measure initially directed at Ohlone Park. Councilwoman Maio put forward some new laws in response to neighbors’ complaints that the park – which has long been a retreat for the homeless – had attracted a new type of occupant, often referred to as “campers,” or “travelers.” These people appear to use drugs openly, leave trash, needles, empty alcohol bottles, bedding, condoms and human feces in the park. They can also be contentious, according to information provided by Maio. The new laws will improve signage and lighting, allow the Health Department to cordon off unsanitary areas for cleaning, and permit police to drive through the park at night to enforce rules and ordinances. The city will also explore installing more portable toilets. A neighborhood group, The Friends of Ohlone Park, will look at the feasibility of building permanent bathroom, among other issues.

Passionate testimony

The early morning votes came after people had lined up for hours to talk. Others had been holding vigil outside City Hall since early Monday. Some speakers talked about how the city needed to establish some common norms for public behavior. Others said the new laws would criminalize the homeless and threaten Berkeley’s chance of getting federal funds to help the homeless and build more housing. They decried the city’s push to harm people who are already helpless, stating that the approach was not the Berkeley way.


Olivia de Bree, a nurse practitioner, and a member of Friends of the Adeline Corridor, talked about how the new laws would disproportionately affect homeless who are African-American. She said a recent study showed that 49% of the homeless in Berkeley are black. Many of them are afflicted with diabetes, other health conditions and mental illness and are doing all they can to cope and stay alive, she said. Housing costs are rising, making it ever difficult to remain in Berkeley. Imposing these new laws will only make their lives harder, she said.

“Berkeley is engaging in an effort to deter black people from living and working in the city,” said de Bree.

Her colleague, Katrina Killian, agreed: “It’s clear there is a hidden agenda here; these are undesirables that the council is supporting the removal of.”

Others called the council’s proposed laws “mean-spirited.”

Homeless advocates held a rally outside city council chambers on Tuesday night to call attention to proposed laws they said would criminalize the homeless. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Homeless advocates held a rally outside city council chambers Tuesday night to call attention to proposed laws they said would criminalize the homeless. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

But there was also a different narrative presented at the meeting. A number of people who live near Ohlone Park said that for years they had been living peacefully with their homeless neighbors. They made them sandwiches, allowed them to use their showers, and knew them by sight.

But the composition of the group living in Ohlone Park has changed, they said. The “new” homeless are so aggressive that their children are afraid to play in the park, a number of people said. Many are wary of even walking downtown with their kids. One man said that people are coming into his backyard to defecate.


Bill Williams, the father of two young children, said his family has been physically and verbally threatened by some homeless. He said that the proposed measures were a “workable first step,” that would establish “common civility in Berkeley.”

“I don’t think these measures criminalize the homeless, said Williams. “I think we are trying to set a standard of behavior for people in Berkeley.”

At times the lengthy meeting became unruly, both because of people shouting out from the audience or from Bates and Worthington fighting at the dais. One woman stood at the back of the room and hurled insults throughout the four-hour comment period, directed at the councilmembers, particularly Bates. At one point, another woman across the room joined her. The shouting and catcalls got so loud at times that it was difficult to hear those testifying or to hear the council’s discussion.

Bates and Worthington had frequent clashes as well (See video below.)

Related:
Op-ed: Support the recommendations of the Homeless Task Force (11.17.15)
Council battle brews over street behaviour, homelessness (11.17.15)
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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