The cat-and-mouse game between Berkeley and a homeless activist group continued early on Wednesday when city officials rousted about 25 people from their tents and sleeping bags on a median on Adeline Street near Oregon Avenue.
A contingent of a few dozen police officers and city workers started waking people up and removing their possessions around 4:40 a.m., according to some members of the group First They Came for the Homeless. One person was arrested and cited in the action, which was finished by 6:30 a.m., just in time to open up the road to commuter traffic.
Berkeley had issued a cease-and-desist order to the encampment around 5:00 p.m. Dec. 19, stating that the group was violating the penal code by using a median for uses other than “temporary safety from moving traffic.” The group, aware that police were going to force them to move, sent out a call via Facebook on Tuesday for supporters to come help them resist the “raid.”
“REMEMBER: WE CAN STOP RAIDS IF ENOUGH PEOPLE SHOW UP WHEN THEY HAPPEN,” the group posted on the First They Came for the Homeless Facebook page. “Please set your alarm for 5:00 AM tomorrow (Wednesday) and check this page to see if there’s notice of a raid going on, then hurry over to Adeline and Oregon in Berkeley, if you’re in the area, of course. Even if you take a bus, there’s a good chance that — as cops see the numbers of defenders growing — they’ll start talking frantically into their lapels.”
There were a number of observers at the Adeline median Wednesday morning, including members of the National Lawyers Guild. One observer – and neighbor –Sally Hindman, the executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks, which helps homeless youth, was arrested by police and then released with a citation. Hindman said she was arrested, handcuffed and placed in a police van after she said she was going to cross the police tape that had been put up to cordon off Adeline Street.
“I didn’t respect a raiding of a homeless encampment four days before Christmas and Hanukkah,” said Hindman.
After the police arrived, those who had been sleeping in the median moved to the sidewalk on the west side of Berkeley Bowl. Many said they planned to set up another encampment immediately.
“We’ll find another spot and move on,” said Clark “Freeman” Sullivan, a videographer who said he had been sleeping on the streets since Nov. 2, every since his roommate assaulted him. “This is just another shot in the war.”
The First They Came for the Homeless group said this is about the twelfth time city officials have rousted them from an encampment on public property.
Matthai Chakko, a spokesman for the city, said Tuesday the action should not be characterized as just a push me-pull you between the city and the FTCFTH group. Other residents of Berkeley are affected by the homeless group’s actions, he said. Berkeley has gotten a number of complaints from neighbors about the people sleeping on the median.
Moreover, he said, in the last week or so, Berkeley has jumped into action to make more shelter beds available so there have been options for those in the FTCFTH other than camping in the middle of a four-lane thoroughfare.
“Sleeping on a median between multiple lanes of traffic is not a safe place to be,” Chakko said in an email Tuesday. “We have shelter space and capacity for them as well as others. We’ve told them verbally and with written notice that that was not an appropriate place several times, including yesterday. They should not be sleeping there…. There are shelter beds available for every single person there.”
The city activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Dec. 14 and since then has focused an unprecedented number of resources toward helping those without housing, said Chakko. As many as 12 city staffers have been working full-time on the issue, he said. They come from the city manager’s office, the fire department, emergency services, public works, the finance department, the parks department, the city clerk’s office, the human resources office, and the city’s senior centers, he said.
“One thing you get with an EOC is it becomes everyone’s top priority,” said Chakko. “We have people from virtually every department involved in the effort… To have this many departments and have so many staff devoted to this is a tremendous effort.”
The city has arranged nearly 24-hour, continuous shelter for nine days and night, according to a memo City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley sent the City Council on Tuesday. Berkeley doubled the number of beds it offers in its Emergency Storm Shelter to 130 beds for those nine nights. (Berkeley contracts with various community agencies to provide an additional 140 shelter beds.) The city also arranged transportation between the shelters in case one was full. “No one was turned away,” read the memo.
To make sure those without homes were aware of the expanded bed capacity, Berkeley sent out numerous workers to various encampments throughout the city, said Chakko. Still, not everyone decided to seek shelter.
“City staff work to provide our community with resources and information so that they can take action to improve their lives,” read Williams-Ridley’s memo. “We cannot force people to take advantage of those resources, even when it is to their own benefit. Some refused shelter even though they were in torrential rain and severe cold. Through considerable experience and decades of effort, we know that some suffer from disabilities that make it hard to make those choices. As a result, the City has more than 30 mental health clinicians who work with those who may need mental health services. Others suffer from substance abuse, and the City also provides resources to help them.”
In addition to expanding the number of beds available, Berkeley is working to find a vacant lot where those without homes can set up some sort of quasi-permanent encampment, said Chakko. The FTCFTH group has been asking for a place to camp for at least two years, arguing that it should not be criminal to be homeless. Berkeley city staff are looking at local indoor and outdoor spaces to see if they can find something suitable, said Chakko.
Despite the city’s efforts, those in the FTCFTH group appear to mistrust city staff.
Critics have said they think Berkeley is selectively targeting the FTCFTH group by forcing it to leave its encampments so many times. Chakko disagreed with that assertion and said the city has removed the possessions of people staying illegally on public property in other parts of the city.
A number of those standing on the sidewalk Wednesday morning blamed the raids not on the City Council, but on Williams-Ridley. They said they planned to camp out on her front lawn, even though she lives in Sacramento.
“It’s basically harassment of the homeless by the city manager’s office,” said Barbara Brust, a founding member of Homeless Lives Matter Berkeley.
Brust stood on the sidewalk Wednesday and watched as city staff took away two of her tents full of supplies. One camper, Gage Black, 38, said city workers woke everyone up and started taking their possessions as soon as they emerged from their tents. There was no time to collect stuff, said Black. He did not lose any gear because he had packed his belongings into a grocery cart the day before.
Berkeley has said it keeps all the possessions it confiscates during these kinds of actions, as required by state law.
Brust said that may be true, but the city tosses everything into a big bin and leaves it open to the elements.
“It’s a metal garbage container not protected from the weather,” said Brust. “If you can dig through with your waders on you can find things.”
Friends of the FTCFTH group brought trucks to load up the camping gear.
The FTCFTH has been camped on the Adeline median since Dec. 2, when their last camp near City Hall was removed. Those camping there have said it is a drug-free, alcohol-free group where members take care of one another. They said they have tried to pick up the trash and be good neighbors – proof that they can be self-governing.
“It was a great camp,” said Black. “We always helped out one another.”
Black said members of the community often came by to donate blankets, sundries, and food.
“I live three blocks away,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, the legal director of Tenants Together and a newly elected member of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. “It was kept immaculate. There was no noise. There were no problems. A lot of us walked by intentionally so we could bear witness.”
Simon-Weisberg paid for three portable toilets — including one that could be used by those in wheelchairs — to be delivered to the median. Sullivan said the portable toilets “made a huge difference.”
Berkeley officials have declined in the past to put portable toilets near groups of homeless people because they feel it encourages illegal camping.
When Simon-Weisberg went by the median Wednesday morning after the tents had been removed she spotted Greg Daniel, the city’s code-enforcement manager, in his car. She knocked on the car window to tell him that she was arranging to have the portable toilets removed. Simon-Weisberg said that she had “never had someone be so disrespectful to me,” as Daniel was. He thanked her for introducing herself because he now knew where to send a $500 citation for putting the portable toilet on public land without a permit, she said.
Update 1:45 p.m.: Mayor Jesse Arreguín responded to this morning’s raid on his Facebook page around 1:10 p.m.
“Prior to this morning’s enforcement action, I did discuss the issue with the City Manager and encouraged her to postpone taking action until after the Christmas holiday,” Arreguín wrote. “In the end, she decided given the volume of complaints by neighbors that she needed to act quickly.
Unlike other cities, Berkeley’s Charter does not give the Mayor executive authority to hire or direct staff. Berkeley has a City Manager form of government, in which the City Manager is hired and is reportable to the City Council. As Mayor, my role is to shape city policy and work with the Manager to implement city policies and initiatives. I do not alone have the unilateral power to direct staff to not enforce violations of the Berkeley Municipal Code. That would take a majority vote of the City Council.
As Mayor, one of my top priorities is to reduce homelessness, and we are working to develop interim and long-term solutions including a Navigation Center, with the goal of permanent supportive housing.”
City expands warming centers, shelter beds (12.16.16)
Berkeley launches ’emergency operations center’ to help shelter more homeless (12.14.16)
Civil-rights groups sue Caltrans over homeless raids (12.14.16)
New mayor aims to overturn key part of homeless law (12.08.16)
City clears out homeless encampment after feces found spread on city buildings (12.02.16)
Homeless encampment moved from Civic Center steps to corner across from BHS (11.07.16)
Police roust homeless camp; activists vow to return (11.04.16)
Protesters criticize Berkeley homeless services center (10.07.16)
Vigil held where Berkeley homeless man died in street (09.24.16)
Homelessness panel: ‘There’s no place for people to go’ (09.12.16)