Op-ed: Being poor is not a crime

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was quoted on Channel 7 News as saying, “It’s not an effort to criminalize people, it’s an effort to try to make things more civil.”

Yet the new homeless ordinance that passed 6-3 early Wednesday – nearly one week before Thanksgiving Day – does in fact criminalize the homeless and poor in Berkeley. It prohibits specific acts associated with being homeless, disabled and mentally ill in Berkeley, which include the following:

  • Placing personal belongings in a space larger than 2 square feet on the sidewalk and public plazas, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Having a “wheeled mobile unit” (which includes shopping carts or wheelchairs) in one place for more than one hour, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Placing personal objects in planters, tree wells, or within 2 feet of a tree well.

Earlier this year, Berkeley defunded the availability of lockers for homeless people to store their belongings (at least a few of them — 60 out of the 800+ that reside in Berkeley). While the new ordinance “calls for” 24-hour access to increased storage facilities for the homeless, it fails to specify where they will be located, or the exact funding numbers or sources. There is no timeline, and few details in the Council report, which calls for 50 to 100 bins of adequate size, additional bathrooms in the Downtown and Telegraph areas, and mobile showers and bathrooms for public use, possibly using BART.

Those measures — additional storage, showers, and bathrooms — are positive and needed. But the prohibitions they are coupled with are mean-spirited, and more importantly, WILL NOT WORK. If what you want to do is to get people off the streets, criminalizing their possessions and transportation and issuing citations they cannot pay will not achieve that goal. The City has tried and failed with this uncivil and mostly symbolic strategy on multiple occasions – either voters reject the ordinances, or courts declare them unenforceable.

The ordinance was strongly supported by the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Berkeley Association. Those entities represent the local business community and they are doing their job. The City, however, is required to put the protection of its residents’ civil and human rights before the desire of merchants for tidier streets.

Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) applauds the three council members who rejected the ordinance and urges the city of Berkeley and the Council to be more transparent about the next steps. If the City is calling for additional services, the community deserves a detailed report with a timeline, by the next Council meeting December 1st. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the new ordinance does, with specificity and consequences, criminalize homeless people while again doing nothing to truly solve the root causes of homelessness.

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Donald Frazier is Executive Director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS). For more information on BOSS, visit www.self-sufficiency.org.