Many people trace the roots of the current homeless crisis back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. He came into office in 1981 with a mandate to cut federal spending. And cut he did. Early in his term Reagan halved the budget for public housing and even tried to eliminate federal subsidies for public low-income housing. The annual budget of $16 billion in 1979 went to just $1 billion in 1983. Reagan also did a number of other things that contributed to a spike in poverty. There was also a recession. By the mid-1980s, there were about 600,000 homeless people in the United States. Today there are from 634,000 to 1.6 million homeless in the U.S., according to various studies. In Berkeley, official estimates say were 834 homeless people as of January 2015, while advocates say there are likely more than 1,000.
Partial Berkeley Homelessness Timeline
1982 – People in campers set up a “Reaganville” encampment near the Marina.
January 1985 – Rainbow Village opens near the Marina (now Cesar Chavez Park). It was a half-acre plot for homeless people who lived in vehicles to park their cars for $30 a month. The city provided some rudimentary services such as a sink and running water. About 35 to 40 people lived at Rainbow Village.
See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project.
Aug. 16, 1985 – Two “Deadheads” living at Rainbow Village were shot and killed. The bodies of Mary Regina Gioia, 22, of Schenectady, New York, and Gregory Kniffin, 18, of Wilson, Connecticut, were found in the bay. They had been beaten badly and shot at close range in the neck. Within a few days, Berkeley police had arrested Ralph International Thomas, another occupant of Rainbow Village, and he was eventually charged with the murders. He was convicted of the killings and sentenced to death. New attorneys later argued in court that Thomas’ defense attorney had not sought witnesses that could have helped his case and a federal appeals court eventually ordered a new trial decades later. Thomas, 59, died in jail in January 2014 while waiting for a new trial.
March 2, 1986 – Rainbow Village is shut down. The experiment lasted 13 months.
1991 – Berkeley creates a voucher system, “Berkeley Cares,” to assist its homeless population of about 800. Merchants sold 25-cent vouchers in books of four. The vouchers could be handed out to homeless people to redeem for laundry, food, showers or bus service. The downtown merchant group spearheading the program sold at least $1,900 in vouchers.
1994 – Berkeley residents pass Measure O to ban lying on sidewalks. The ACLU filed suit, but the measure was repealed when a new City Council was elected.
January 2003 – A count of the Berkeley homeless population indicates there are 821 homeless, with 529 of those “chronically homeless.” Berkeley has 41% of the county’s homeless population.
Nov. 27, 2007 – Council adopts a measure put forth by Mayor Tom Bates called the “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative.” It prohibits lying (but not sitting) on the sidewalk and banned smoking in certain commercial areas. The measure raised parking fees by 25 cents an hour to improve supportive services for the homeless as well. The initiative included a “centralized homeless intake system.”
January 2009 – A count of Berkeley’s homeless population shows there are 680 homeless, a 48% decrease from 2003.
January 2012 – The newly formed Downtown Berkeley Association, armed with $1.2 million raised through Business Improvement District fees, hires 10 Downtown Ambassadors to keep the area clean and interact with its homeless population.
June 12, 2012 – Council votes to put a measure on the November 2012 ballot to ban sitting on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Business groups that have been complaining that the sight of so many homeless people in front of their stores drives customers away heavily back the measure. The measure provokes a huge split in Berkeley. There are numerous rallies against the plan.
Nov. 6, 2012 – Measure S fails.
March and April 2014 – The city of Albany pays about two dozen homeless people who have been living at the Albany Bulb landfill to leave town. They each receive $3,000. Many of them move to Berkeley.
April 10, 2014 – Caltrans installs fencing around state-owned land under the Gilman Street overpass, pushing those living there onto the sidewalks and the frontage road nearby, which is owned by the city of Berkeley.
June 19, 2014 – The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules that a Los Angeles rule prohibiting people from sleeping in their cars is unconstitutionally vague. The Berkeley city attorney subsequently determines that the city cannot ticket people for sleeping in cars and tells police to stop coming down on them. BPD stops ticketing. Soon cars used as homes are parked along many streets in West Berkeley.
August 2014 – City Councilman Jesse Arreguín launches the Berkeley Task Force on Homelessness to take a comprehensive look at services offered.
November 2014 – Two groups, First They Came for the Homeless and Berkeley Post Office Defenders, set up a camp outside the main Berkeley post office at 2000 Allston Way. Although they initially set up a protest camp to stop the sale of the historic building, the site soon drew a number of homeless people who connected the proposed sale of federal property with a lack of affordable housing and a rise in homelessness.
Jan. 28, 2015 – Alameda County conducts a “point in time” count of the homeless. Berkeley has an estimated 834 homeless people, with 266 of them in shelter and 568 living outside. That latter number is 53% higher than the last count in 2009. (Advocates told Berkeleyside this week they believe the overall tally is at least 25% too low.)
March 26, 2015 – A video of a Downtown Ambassador beating a homeless man becomes public. The next day a group of people hold a rally to protest what they call ongoing harassment of those living on the streets. The Ambassador involved is fired.
May 2015 – Berkeley installs 10 donation boxes throughout the downtown. Residents are encouraged to donate money for homeless services.
November 2015 – In protest of laws suggested by some city of Berkeley officials, a group of homeless people set up tents on the lawn in front of Old City Hall. They name their encampment “Liberty City,” and say they will police it themselves.
November-December 2015 – Council votes to enact another set of laws to address the behavior of those living on the streets. The ordinance restricts the amount of space people sitting on the sidewalk can use and orders the creation of a facility with lockers for them to store their stuff. 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. (The laws won’t go into effect until the lockers can be provided.)
Dec. 4, 2015 – Liberty City residents pack up under orders by the city and under the watchful eye of police.A few of the residents, including Zint, are arrested.
Jan. 5, 2016 – Berkeley’s new streamlined service center to help the homeless opens at The Hub, at 1901 Fairview St., under the auspices of Berkeley Food & Housing Project. It is a major step toward a “housing first” policy that many experts believe is a more effective way to attempt to end homelessness.
February 2016 – Council hears a report from the Homeless Task Force that includes suggestions for how to help address the issue.
April 12, 2016 – U.S. Postal Office inspectors clear the “Post Office Defenders” encampment at the main post office on Allston Way. It had been there for 17 months. Post office officials immediately erected a metal fence around the area with a “Do Not Trespass” sign. In June, officials tore out the community garden that had been erected by the homeless encampment.
June 16, 2016 – Caltrans and Berkeley city workers clean up the encampment under the Gilman underpass, though local residents are quick to point out that campers continue to live in the area.
Gilman Street underpass: For many, the poster child of Berkeley homeless camps (06.29.16)
Would a homeless mayor in Berkeley make a difference for the homeless? (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: The fact sheet (06.29.16)
Berkeley mayoral hopefuls weigh in on homelessness (06.29.16)
Photos: Living on the streets of Berkeley (06.29.16)
Berkeley seeks to house those most in need at The Hub (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: An overview (06.29.16)
Berkeleyside will focus on homelessness Wednesday (06.28.19)
Share your questions about homelessness in Berkeley (06.21.16)
Berkeleyside will publish stories on homelessness throughout the day Wednesday. Check back for continuing coverage. Want to share your thoughts on homelessness to help shape future coverage? Weigh in here.
See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project. Read more about homelessness in Berkeley. This story is part of the Bay Area-wide initiative to document homeless issues. This endeavor, The San Francisco Homeless Project, includes 70 media organizations.