Opinion: In Berkeley, there is no room at the inn

Berkeley provides sanctuary to immigrants fleeing poverty and violence. Yet it won’t provide sanctuary to those inside its own borders who need help: the homeless living in RVs. This must change.

Attention Berkeley residents: Do you have one of those signs that says:

“No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

or

“We Believe… No Human is Illegal…”

I’m sorry but your sign is no longer operative: you’re going to have to change it to:

“No matter where you’re from**, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
“We Believe… No Human is Illegal**…”

** Unless you are a resident of Berkeley living in your car, a camper van or RV.

On Thursday, Feb. 28th, the Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 to pass the first reading of one of the most inhumane ordinances it has ever taken up. It voted to condemn those residents of Berkeley who are homeless but in possession of an RV for their shelter and transportation needs to either banishment or sleeping in doorways. They did this by banning RVs from parking on city streets in the wee hours of the morning, from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m, (and yes, that includes YOUR RV if you happen to own one, are otherwise housed, and now park it on the street). The legislation would also ban any kind of sleeping or “lodging” in any kind of vehicle, not just RVs.

In other words, when faced with a homeless crisis, after professing to want to do everything possible to alleviate said crisis, and after declaring recurring shelter emergencies, the City Council voted to make homelessness an even more extreme problem in Berkeley than it is already.

This action was driven by complaints from housed residents and business owners in West Berkeley. But instead of considering reasonable regulations to limit the number or density of RVs in any one location, to provide assistance to those surviving in RVs by providing dumping facilities, and/or treating those forced to live in RVs, including children, as human beings — as almost the entire public requested before the vote, even those insisting that “something has to be done” — the council chose a draconian response. No public speaker, including those most affected by the aggregation of RVs in West Oakland, spoke in favor of outright banishment, and yet the City Council could barely contain itself in its eagerness to enact legislation that no one in the community apparently advocated for nor apparently wanted.

Not only is this vote by the Berkeley City Council cruel, but the ordinance, or parts of it, may be against the law.

In June of 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a ban on living in vehicles as unconstitutionally vague and an invitation to discriminate against the poor.

In August, in Bloom v San Diego, a federal judge blocked San Diego from enforcing municipal code outlawing living in vehicles because “the ordinance is both vague on its face and is being arbitrarily enforced.”

In September, in Martin v Boise, the Ninth Circuit ruled that it was unconstitutional to outlaw people’s needs as human beings in public spaces (e.g. the necessity for sleep) if a city could not provide a place for them to go.

“We consider whether the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to. We conclude that it does.

The city of Berkeley has continued to refuse to designate any place for Berkeley resident RV dwellers to live, it has evicted them from their previous residences at the Marina, and its shelters are full. Outlawing their residences (their RVs) and condemning them to effective banishment or unsheltered street survival arguably falls under a similar rubric.

Regardless of the legal and constitutional arguments, Berkeley is engaging in unethical and immoral behavior. We profess our support and willingness to provide sanctuary for those from foreign lands, yet we refuse to humanely deal with those within our city’s borders on the brink of losing all they have. It’s time for the City Council (and each of us) to look a little more carefully into the mirror, to reconsider what we are doing, and, on March 26th, for the City Council to refuse to enact this ordinance into law.

JP Massar is a Berkeley activist who can't figure out why 200 RV's can't be distributed over the 221 miles of paved Berkeley roads and streets so that we can all live and let live.