Opinion: We need a clean and healthy Berkeley for all

The state of our public commons, from streets in West Berkeley to the University and Gilman underpasses, is unacceptable. We need to clean them up while being mindful of those who are struggling with no place to live.

The current condition of much of our public commons—from the streets of West Berkeley to our University and Gilman underpasses—is not acceptable. As the City Council representative for these areas, it troubles me to see piles of bulky debris and trash alongside unsafe homeless encampments. We must recognize that the state of our public spaces is directly tied to our inability to shelter or permanently house all members of our community. As we continue to work on solutions to homelessness, I believe we must address the state of our public commons.

Our city’s Public Works department staff clear tons of trash and debris from our streets and sidewalks regularly, and I want to acknowledge their heroic efforts. One recent operation in West Berkeley removed more than nine tons of debris in a single day. But it’s apparent to anyone who drives along Eastshore Highway that our current level of staff and resources is insufficient to fully meet the need. There will be a Special Council Meeting this Thursday, Feb. 28th (6 p.m., BUSD Board Room, 1231 Addison St.) to take urgent action to address the state of our public spaces.

At the special meeting, the City Council will be considering the following key actions:

  • Adding additional staff in order to enhance the city’s ability to quickly clear bulky debris and litter from public spaces.
  • Adding additional portable toilets so that human waste doesn’t end up on our streets and sidewalks.
  • Deterring illegal dumping by adding lighting, security cameras, and signage in areas like West Berkeley that have become dumping grounds.

I believe that our streets belong to everyone. This also means that we have to consider the impact on our community of the heavy concentration of RVs parked in West Berkeley. I recognize that the proliferation of RVs is yet another symptom of our region’s shortage of affordable homes. During my campaign, I wrote an op-ed on my plan to address homelessness, in which I pledged to personally meet with unsheltered individuals.

I’ve now had the opportunity to meet and talk with a number of people who are homeless or living in RVs in West Berkeley. I think of the working mom I met who lives in an RV with her partner and their two young kids; the elderly woman who lost her home and is now living in an RV and bathing at her kitchen sink; and a former in-home caregiver who was priced out of his apartment and is now unsheltered on our streets. Their struggles and stories matter to me. I believe that a primary function of government is to protect the most vulnerable, and it is hard not to feel deep anger and frustration at the way in which our federal government has failed us. But as a local elected official, it is my job to work every day to make a positive difference on seemingly intractable challenges like homelessness. I am committed to working with Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other local elected officials in Alameda County to identify and develop a regional non-profit RV site. Mayor Arreguín and I also share a desire to bring together regional stakeholders to address the challenge of homelessness. In particular, a regional process could address immediate and long-term needs including:

  • Non-profit RV sites and safe parking locations for people sheltering in RVs and cars;
  • A policy to address the homeless encampments, trash, and debris on freeway underpasses and on-ramp areas on CalTrans property—a problem facing the entire Bay Area;
  • A funding mechanism to provide permanent housing subsidies for people who are homeless; and
  • A comprehensive look at what it would take to build the affordable housing units needed to meet the full need.

As a City Councilwoman, I must represent the interests of our whole community, and I recognize the detrimental impact that the high concentration of RVs is having on our West Berkeley businesses and neighbors. In December, Berkeley police counted nearly 200 RVs, campers, converted buses, and vehicles designed for habitation, with more than 100 located west of San Pablo Avenue. I’ve met with West Berkeley business owners who are concerned about the accessibility of their businesses to customers and the safety of their employees who are walking longer distances at night to get to their parked cars. Commercial landlords are having trouble finding tenants for spaces in West Berkeley and some businesses are planning to leave the area. I want to guard against an exodus of businesses from West Berkeley. I’ve also heard directly from neighbors who feel frustrated that public streets have been occupied by RVs for extended periods of time. Unless you live or work west of San Pablo Avenue, it can be difficult to imagine the daily frustration of seeing piles of debris and trash and sometimes even human waste on your streets and sidewalks.

With all of this in mind, the special City Council meeting on Thursday, Feb. 28th will consider adding resources to promote clean and livable commons. We will also consider limiting RV parking in Berkeley while offering support, such as one-time housing problem-solving assistance or flexible funding to repair a broken-down RV. Right now, there is no city law that prevents RVs from parking in the same general area for extended periods of time, which sets Berkeley apart from many surrounding Bay Area cities that do enforce restrictions.

After Feb. 28th, my work will continue. In the coming weeks and months, I will be working on a plan to address the debris and trash at the University and Gilman underpasses as well as put forward a comprehensive encampment policy.

Ultimately, we each have a role to play in keeping our community clean. Berkeley has always been a place where we recognize the power of collective action to make a big difference. I’m inspired when I hear stories of residents who carry trash bags to pick up litter when they go for walks in their West Berkeley neighborhood. Let’s all pledge to do our part to create a clean and healthy city.

Rashi Kesarwani is the City Council member for District 1, which includes the northern portion of West Berkeley.