Op-ed: Berkeley must change the way it provides shelter to the homeless

The people who run the center for providing Berkeley’s homeless services (the HUB) write on their website: “Since 1970, Berkeley Food and Housing Project has been a compassionate provider of homeless services.”

Forty-six years! The plight of Berkeley’s homeless is arguably the worse for all that time and effort. Isn’t it time to try a different approach?

Berkeley passed an emergency shelter ordinance almost a year ago, then sat on its collective bureaucratic fanny for the entire spring and summer. So here we are once more, with the homeless facing rain, wind, and cold with nowhere to go. Isn’t it time to try a different approach?

We know how to end homelessness – provide people with homes. We know what homeless people want – a roof over their heads; a secure room or two; no one kicking them out after a night or three. Or twenty. Just what anyone wants – a place to call their own. Isn’t it time to try it?Perhaps idealists think that within a year Berkeley could build hundreds of affordable homes at $250,00 – $350,000 a pop and give them to the homeless. The reality is that kind of money only grows on Federal Reserve trees, and they aren’t in season.

But many who want to give the homeless a leg up, something, anything besides a gutter, a bush or a doorway, know there are other options. And we know that Berkeley’s City Council could have already implemented one or more of them had it decided that the homeless were more important than two square feet of sidewalk space. Instead of criminalizing the homeless almost a year ago they could have put in motion plans that would be housing significant numbers of Berkeley’s homeless in the coming rainy months. Housing that would have had every Bay Area city looking our way, marveling and, perhaps, emulating us.

But they did not. Instead, they decided to make it more illegal to relieve oneself in open space. I’d like to know, Oh Great and Powerful City Council – If you were sleeping in a doorway in December, and it was 4:00 AM and 40 degrees, and you woke up and had to go, would you try to find a legally open bathroom or would you – now more illegally – piss on a bush?

Berkeley’s homeless, with little question, are faced with another winter outdoors because of such inanity.

But the City doesn’t have to be in this position again next October. The City Council could ignore the NIMBY’s and authorize Tiny Homes communities, using the powers given it by its own Emergency Shelter Declaration. The City Council could act responsibly and purchase hundreds of bankrupt Haijan’s shipping containers – now sitting at the Port of Oakland – and refurbish them into small homes, stacked one upon another. The City Council could order refugee housing – prepackaged villages that can house hundreds of people on a site – and have them set up on public land.

You’re telling me the City of Berkeley can refurbish a dog park (I own a dog, I appreciate the effort!) but it can’t create cost-effective, small, homes for some of its most desperate citizens?

Of course, it could. If it wanted to. Isn’t it time to try a different approach?

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JP Massar is a Berkeley resident and activist, one of who's interests is in making sure everyone has a home.