Opinion: Sanctioned encampments for Berkeley: A simple strategy to create a place to call your own

Sanctioned encampments are a practical, legal and low-cost strategy to increase shelter for Berkeley’s homeless residents.

Last Friday night, winter rain arrived in Berkeley. For many residents, the change in the seasons was a welcome relief from the threat of wildfires. However, for the city’s estimated 900 people living without shelter, the rain was a sullen reminder that Berkeley has failed to permanently increase shelter beds or implement a policy to adequately address the homelessness crisis.

Last winter, Berkeley activated its Emergency Operations Center to temporarily double shelter capacity and established the Hub, a consolidation of homeless services. These efforts were well-intentioned, but homeless residents criticized the Hub for inefficiency and doubling shelter capacity yielded fewer than 300 beds. According to deputy city attorney Savith Iyengar, Berkeley “strives” to support its homeless residents through the provision of services, but the city has not explored more permanent policy solutions.

Why is the city of Berkeley so reluctant to act? Peter Marcuse, Columbia University professor emeritus and 1972 UC Berkeley City and Regional Planning PhD, reminds us that homelessness persists because it is expensive to remedy and requires coordination between separate fields like criminal justice, health care, and education. “Lack of knowledge or tools is not the problem,” writes Marcuse, “the problem is implementing our knowledge.”

Homeless resident Sam Clune told NBC Bay Area reporter Gillian Edevane, “The city spends a lot of time talking about big solutions that they’re not going to do… a lot of it’s just talk, with very little actually getting done.” Especially frustrating to homeless residents is the fact that a low-cost solution exists: sanctioned encampments.

On Jan. 2, 2016, in the midst of the wettest winter we’d seen in six years, Clune’s camp, First They Came for the Homeless (FTCFTH), published a piece on IndyBay.org that described why many homeless residents prefer sanctioned encampments to shelters and navigation centers.

A sanctioned encampment is a way for homeless residents to live in community without fear of eviction. In order to maintain residents’ safety and build positive relationships with neighbors, a sanctioned encampment prohibits alcohol, drug use, and violence and respects noise curfews. Although a sanctioned encampment is not a solution for homeless residents with children or severe mental illness, it is a good environment and inexpensive solution for many. Under the city’s emergency shelter crisis, Berkeley can explore sanctioned encampments on vacant land.

In comparison to a shelter or navigation center, a sanctioned encampment allows residents to live autonomously, which in turn increases self-esteem and self-sufficiency. Residents can choose to keep a beloved pet or belongings nearby. Friends can stick together rather than compete for space in a shelter. Most of all, a sanctioned encampment provides a place to call one’s own. The author of the FTCFTH post says it best:

“What do we want? What everyone wants. A place to call their own. With a door and a key. A place we can go to be alone when it suits us, and to have guests when we feel like it. To be treated with respect, not as society’s pariahs. To be given the support from society we need to live fruitful lives.”

On Oct. 3, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to develop safe haven sites around the city. This idea mirrors the sanctioned encampment proposal from FTCFTH. Safe haven sites will provide homeless residents a place where they can camp securely and access resources to seek housing and employment. In mid-October, Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries partnered with a group of organized homeless residents led by activist Needa Bee who call themselves Feed the People. Similar to FTCFTH, Feed the People prohibits alcohol and drug use, provides security for one another, values autonomy from shelters, and prioritizes working in partnership with other homeless camps and residents. Berkeley should follow Oakland’s lead.

On Nov. 28, a few days after Thanksgiving, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup will receive two practical plans for sheltering Berkeley’s homeless residents this winter: one from the city of Berkeley and one from attorney Dan Siegel and his clients, First They Came for the Homeless. These plans will help the judge understand the context of the problem and write a practical order to resolve the dispute over the eviction of FTCFTH from their camp at the corner of Adeline and MLK in South Berkeley.

Even though sanctioned encampments are a temporary solution to much larger problems like wage inequality and affordable housing, they are the one that affected residents support. Judge Alsup and Berkeley city officials should take this proposal seriously. Sanctioned encampments are a practical, legal and low-cost strategy to increase shelter for Berkeley’s homeless residents.

Robin Pearce is a Master’s of Public Health Student at UC Berkeley and neighbor to the First They Came for the Homeless camp.