Op-ed: Open letter to Mayor, City Council about homelessness in Berkeley

Dear Mayor Bates and Berkeley City Council members,

Once again, as winter approaches, Berkeley is confronted with the inadequacy of our efforts to address the issues confronting our homeless population. In the absence of significant progress, the city has once again turned to police action, confronting and dispersing homeless encampments that have often been established as vehicles of protest.

I have a few observations to make, none of which are in any way original, many of which have been made before by others and not acted upon, with a sense of growing urgency.

  1. Except in the circumstance of life-threatening emergency, police interference with homeless encampments during nighttime hours simply must stop. These are the tactics of ‘shock and awe.’ They are as brutal, useless, and self defeating when used by Berkeley as they were by Bush. So just stop it.
  1. Many of the homeless people in these encampments have severe medical problems that need to be addressed. Please figure out a way of mobilizing the medical resources that Berkeley has at it disposal in order to treat, perhaps on an emergency basis, these people in need.
  1. There are vacant properties in Berkeley that cry out to be commandeered for emergency shelter. In my council district there are at least two apartment houses that have been vacant and boarded up for years — one on Roosevelt between Channing and Dwight, one on Delaware, between Josephine and Milvia. These properties, and others like them, should, in my view, be seized by the city (state of emergency, eminent domain, whatever works), turned into emergency housing for the winter and, perhaps, into long-term low income housing. At a time of a deep shortage of affordable housing, keeping apartments or properties vacant is simply socially unacceptable and Berkeley should act decisively to address this issue.
  1. Identifying a location for an organized homeless encampment is urgent. Let’s agree that no particular place is perfectly ideal. Let’s agree that governance, sanitation, toilet and shower facilities, and the like will be a work in progress. But let’s do this in a positive way, with a commitment to making it happen.

We all understand that homelessness is a difficult issue to address. But in the absence of significant positive steps, Berkeley will inevitable find itself in the position of dehumanizing those who are on the streets. If that’s what we do, that’s what we will become.

And none of us wants that.

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Jack Kurzweil is professor (emeritus) of electrical engineering at San Jose State, a Berkeley resident for more than 30 years, and an active member of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.