Opinion: Berkeley fails to meet its homeless residents’ most basic needs

Berkeley talks about helping the homeless but it seems beyond the city’s ability to provide a modicum of dignity to its residents who have the least.

“It’s a failure of our society that the humanitarian crisis of homelessness has been allowed to get so bad. Addressing homelessness is my administration’s top priority.” — Mayor Jesse Arreguín, State of the City address, July 10, 2017.

Homeless or not, people eat, they need to go to the bathroom, they create trash. Berkeley’s government knows this. Nonetheless, Berkeley’s housed officials consistently refuse to spend a dime to locate Porta Potties or schedule trash pickup in areas where homeless Berkeley residents congregate and live under constant threat of eviction — largely because of the self-fulfilling, persistent belief that the homeless are not sanitary.

The city of Berkeley and the state of California require that every house have a bathroom, for excellent health-and-safety reasons. Yet the city refuses to provide the homeless, who by definition do not have a house to have a bathroom in, with somewhere to go, OR EVEN THE RIGHT TO CONTRACT WITH A PORTA POTTY PROVIDER ON THEIR OWN AND PAY FOR IT.

The city of Berkeley provides trash pickup, again for excellent health-and-safety reasons. Yet the city refuses to provide the homeless with trash containers or trash pickup services — OR EVEN ALLOW THEM TO PAY FOR THE SERVICES ON THEIR OWN.

The city then turns around and claims the homeless pose health-and-safety concerns. Ergo, a self-fulfilling or, if you prefer, Catch-22. In a city that professes to be willing to lose millions to say we stand with some of our residents against Trump’s insane policies, this continued failure to provide our current homeless residents with the most basic of human needs — a place to go to the bathroom — is an inexplicable and inexcusable failure of progressivism.

We are a city seeing the forest but not the trees. Berkeley can conceptualize homelessness as a theoretical humanitarian crisis, yet treats each individual homeless person’s basic human needs as unworthy of consideration.

Let’s be clear: the Pathway Project’s intent — creating a respite for some of Berkeley’s homeless and a better chance of escaping homelessness for a few — is a reasonable, if costly, endeavor (although some aspects of its proposed implementation are questionable). And the massive proposal for housing and services on the site of the Berkeley Way parking lot, designed for the homeless and those on very low incomes, is to be applauded. This is not an either/or situation. These projects are off in the future and, while impressive in scope, can only make a dent to homelessness in Berkeley.

Since Dec. 1, 2016, when Mayor Arreguín took office, activists, homeless and housed, including the author, have been asking, nay begging, the city in every way they can to provide the most basic of services to homeless encampments. On Saturday, July 15, in a town hall called by Ben Bartlett, Councilman for District 3, the community (including many business owners) overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, demanded that the city reverse the inhumane, absurd and self-defeating policies that have prevented this from happening.

With no prospect that Berkeley’s homeless will be housed in the short or medium term, isn’t the least Berkeley – which claims to care – can do is provide humanitarian services at low cost while promoting health and safety for all. What’s not to like?

And yet all we get is bureaucratic runaround. We get one excuse after another. There are referrals and re-referrals to committees and staff, but the city seems to think doing the right thing is as impossible a task as bringing peace to the Middle East. In fact, it is not beyond the city’s ability to immediately provide – or allow to be provided — a modicum of dignity to its residents who have the least. The city could act, and the City Council could demand action through legislation and direction to staff. Nothing happens.

Would you want to live without a bathroom within tens of yards of where you are staying? Without permission to have one? Would you want to have to haul your trash for blocks, have nowhere to legally dispose of it, or live with it around you? Homeless people are forced to live that way.

It’s one thing — a very good thing — to acknowledge that homelessness is a problem and try to do something about it. It’s another thing — a very bad thing — to refuse to see the homeless as human beings, constituents, residents, and neighbors with basic needs. This anti-humanitarian inaction is not worthy of Berkeley. It needs to end. Now.

JP Massar is a housed Berkeley activist working to eliminate homelessness, the surveillance state and unjust debt. Debbie Notkin is a housed resident of Oakland who supplements her full-time job with organizing for public banking and economic justice.