The intersection of Interstate 80 and University Avenue is the entrance to Berkeley, and in the last few years it has turned into an eyesore. Home to about 100 people without a place to live, the two “eyebrows” on the west side of the freeway are a jumble of tents, shanties, heaps of garbage, discarded mattresses and bicycle parts. One Berkeley resident called it a “cesspool” and an “embarrassment.” A city official referred to the encampment as “a humanitarian crisis.”
For Jesse Arreguín, who was elected mayor in 2016 on a pledge of doing more for the homeless, the encampment by the Seabreeze Market is an albatross. Try as he might — and he has proposed many ideas on how to clean the place up and help the residents while reckoning with the property owner, Caltrans — he has not come up with a solution.
For many voters in Berkeley considering whether to reelect him, the encampments along I-80 represent a massive fail on the part of the city of Berkeley, and by extension, Arreguín.
For many voters in Berkeley considering whether to reelect him, the encampments along I-80 represent a massive fail on the part of the city and, by extension, Arreguín. In addition, more tents seem to be springing up around Berkeley, along Gilman Street, Ashby Avenue, Shattuck Avenue, Adeline Street and in Willard Park. The tents are there, in part, because CDC guidelines recommend people shelter in place as much as possible to stop the spread of the coronavirus; Berkeley is following those guidelines. The city has mostly stopped relocating the unhoused.
“This has been a very thorny issue,” Arreguín acknowledged in a recent interview with Berkeleyside, referring to the encampments near the freeway. “It’s the entryway to the city. It’s unacceptable. It’s not OK to let people live like that and it’s a safety hazard. We have to act.”
Had these encampments been on city property, Berkeley would already have resolved the issue, he said. “The fact that it’s on Caltrans property makes it more complicated. We need their cooperation and we need their approval.”
Arreguín knows that most Berkeley residents aren’t that interested in who has jurisdiction over the land. They just want something to be done, both to get rid of the unsightly encampments and to help the unhoused who need support. And each day that passes, the pressure to act grows.
“When I drive into Berkeley, I am heartbroken by the hundreds of people in camps along the street,” former Mayor Gus Newport wrote in a forthcoming Berkeleyside editorial. He has endorsed Wayne Hsiung, one of Arreguín’s opponents, for mayor. “Homelessness, however, is not an accident or inevitability; it is a direct result of policy choices made by our elected officials. Instead of providing supportive services and housing, Arreguín has chosen a punitive route – with disastrous results.”
Osha Neumann, a lawyer with the East Bay Community Law Center who has filed lawsuits on behalf of the homeless against Berkeley, said no one politician can ever end homelessness in a region with such a huge housing shortage. The test instead is how a politician treats those who have to live on the streets. Does he or she make sure toilets, hand-washing stations and regular trash pickup is happening? Are service providers doing outreach? While Berkeley has taken some positive steps, it should do more, he said.
“I don’t fault anybody for not ending homelessness, not any politician,” said Neumann, who has not endorsed anyone in the mayoral campaign. “I would fault any politician who says they are going to end homelessness because they are not going to do it.”
Confronting the homeless issue is just one of the crises Arreguín, 36, has had to face in the last four years as mayor. He’s also had to grapple with the 2017 street battles between antifascist activists and right-wing groups such the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Identity Evropa; the 2019 PG&E power shutoffs; threats from President Trump to cut funding to sanctuary cities like Berkeley; protests against police in the wake of George Floyd’s death; the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, including the economic devastation facing Berkeley’s small businesses, restaurants and art institutions and the many people who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay rent and buy food. As David Brooks wrote in his New York Times column this week, “Governing is usually about responding to crises you didn’t choose or foresee.”
The challenges have changed him, Arreguín said. He had served on Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board and City Council for 12 years before becoming one of the city’s youngest-ever mayors, often aligning himself with the left wing of the council that included Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson. In those days, Arreguín was often known for what he opposed as much as what he proposed. He, along with Sophie Hahn, now a City Council member running for reelection in District 5, were the backers of the second Measure R in 2014 that sought to impose greater restrictions on the three 180-foot-high buildings that were allowed downtown. Most Berkeley voters — 74% — opposed it. Arreguín was often critical of many of the market-rate projects that came before the council.
“I really feel like I am a different person now than I was four years ago. All the challenges we faced — you can’t help but grow as a leader and adapt.” — Mayor Jesse Arreguín
Arreguín no longer rigidly holds those positions, he said. He now more often votes for large apartment complexes because he knows Berkeley needs the developer fees that come with them to help build more affordable units. And Berkeley also needs housing for all income levels, he said.
As mayor, Arreguín said he has to represent all of the city, rather than just one district. Building consensus on the council has become his priority over pushing to make a point. He has also brought back civility to council meetings.
“I really feel like I am a different person now than I was four years ago,” said Arreguín. “All the challenges we faced — you can’t help but grow as a leader and adapt. I’ve felt it’s my fundamental responsibility to keep our community safe and to advance our values and represent the whole community.”
Evidence of Arreguín’s political evolution can be seen in his list of endorsers. Many of the people who endorsed former City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli for mayor in 2016, including former Mayor Tom Bates, are now backing Arreguín. Seven of the eight council members have endorsed him. The exception is City Councilmember Cheryl Davila. The entire School Board is endorsing him as are seven rent board commissioners. The Berkeley Democratic Club, in which Capitelli is a leader, gave its endorsement, as did the Berkeley Progressive Alliance and Berkeley Citizens Action, among others. There doesn’t seem to be a single organization, political or governmental body, or nonprofit that is not endorsing him.
“I am enthusiastically endorsing him,” said City Councilmember Lori Droste, who backed Capitelli in the last mayoral election and has had policy differences with Arreguín over the years. “He’s evolved as a leader. He is governing as the leader of the entire city instead of a district, so he has to create consensus. He has matured in this position. I find him much more reasonable.”
The slew of endorsements may also reflect the weakness of Arreguín’s opponents. There’s a logic to endorsing the person who looks like he has the strongest chance of winning.
Aidan Hill, the vice-chair of the Homeless Commission and a passionate advocate for People’s Park, was unable to secure a City Council seat in 2018, making a win a longshot in a city-wide race. Naomi Pete is a perennial candidate for various positions. Hsiung, who is running a strong ground campaign, appears to be the biggest threat to Arreguín’s reelection. But he is also the co-founder of the controversial animal rights group DxE, which had members do bloody die-ins in front of the Local Butcher Shop until its owners agreed to put a sign in the window acknowledging there is no “humane” way to butcher animals. Hsiung has also been charged with 17 felonies in three different states in connection with entering industrial farms around the country, filming inside and taking animals.
Affordable housing is the best way to reduce homelessness
One Tuesday in July, in a parking lot on Berkeley Way, officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the largest affordable and homeless housing project in Berkeley’s history. The complex now being built at 2012 Berkeley Way will have two components. One side will have 53 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless and disabled men and women; 32 shelter beds for homeless men; and 12 transitional housing beds for homeless male veterans. Mental health and medical services will be offered on-site and a communal dining room will allow residents and unsheltered people to share meals.
The other portion of the site will have 89 units of affordable housing, ranging from studios to one- and two-bedroom apartments. They will be available through a lottery to people who earn 50%-60% of the area median income.
Arreguín could not make the ceremony, so City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, City Councilmember Kate Harrison and others represented Berkeley. But the project is something Arreguín is particularly proud of because, in 2009, he and then-council members Linda Maio and Kriss Worthington first proposed the idea of a service-enriched homeless housing project.
It took 11 years to cobble together funding for the $120 million complex, and a 2018 bond pushed by Arreguín and his allies ultimately made the project feasible, Williams-Ridley said at the ceremony. Berkeley donated the land and committed $27 million from its Housing Trust Fund, funded by fees developers pay when they don’t include affordable units in developments, and money from Measure O, the bond measure. Other funds came from state, county and private sources.
“I can’t help but see hundreds of people on our streets who don’t have homes and not recognize we have a problem and that we are facing a housing crisis,” Arreguín told Berkeleyside this week. “The status quo is not working. Housing is the solution to homelessness and housing is critical to creating a more equitable and racially and culturally diverse community.”
Yet progress is painfully slow, Arreguín acknowledges, and his critics are using the pace of progress to suggest he is callous to the plight of the unhoused.
Arreguín has consistently said Hsiung distorts his record and cherry-picks “facts” about the mayor’s initiatives. That 22 number is an incomplete snapshot and doesn’t reflect the units in Berkeley’s housing pipeline, Arreguín said. While 22 units have been constructed since he became mayor (during the years 2017-2019) another 244 were built between 2014 and 2016 when he served on the council. An additional 338 below-market-rate units have been approved but have not started construction, according to Berkeley’s recent housing pipeline report. In that same time frame, 994 market-rate units have been built.
As the president of ABAG, Arreguín said he is very aware of how much farther Berkeley and the entire Bay Area have to go to meet the region’s housing needs. Arreguín also argues he is in a good position to help drive the debate and to push cities to meet their quotas. In terms of other accomplishments connected to housing, Arreguín points to the MOU Berkeley and BART worked out to build housing on the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations, the millions of dollars the city has donated for flexible housing funds for people to retain their housing or consult a lawyer and programs to prevent displacement. He also helped raise $4.4 million for the Berkeley Relief Fund to give direct grants for people struggling to pay rent, to small business owners, and to art non-profits. (Berkeley donated $3 million of those funds and individuals and companies contributed the rest.) Early on, the City Council also passed a moratorium on evictions during the state of emergency.
Arreguín is proud of the Pathways program, which has housed 250 people
If there is one program that Arreguín is singularly proud of, one that he often mentions in debates and talks, it is Pathways center on Second Street. Arreguín and Hahn pushed the initiative, which is modeled on San Francisco’s navigation centers. The program allows (or did before COVID) partners to sleep near one another and bring pets. There is a kitchen, some communal meals, services and the ability to come and go freely 24/7. People can stay for up to six months. The aim is to give unhoused people respite from the street, counseling and the resources and funds to find more permanent housing.
Arreguín said 250 people have been placed in permanent housing through Pathways. However, sometimes the subsidies are only for the short term and people have ended up back on the streets.
“Most subsidies are short term,” said boona cheema, the former director of BOSS and a longtime advocate for the unhoused. She has endorsed Arreguín. “Just because they got housing, the issues are still there, like poverty, addiction and mental health issues. People fall out of the housing.”
Cheema wishes Arreguín would be bolder and have the courage to acknowledge that large groups of people will never be housed. (Berkeley has about 1,000 homeless people with another 1,000 drifting through every year, according to a city report.)
“Where are people supposed to go?” she said. “Are there small encampments we can create? It doesn’t have to be a 100-person encampment.”
The City Council has voted to create a sanctioned encampment in Berkeley and to look at a place for RVs to get short-term permits to park. So far, officials haven’t come up with a spot. State agencies nixed the parking lot by the former Hs Lordships, Arreguín said. The city is still looking, said Arreguín, but there just isn’t a lot of available space in Berkeley. He said he is convening a meeting with Alameda County and other East Bay mayors to discuss a regional RV lot. In the meantime, Berkeley is not enforcing its ban against overnight RV parking.
The pandemic has been both good and bad for the unhoused. The good: Berkeley got state money to rent out two hotels that can accommodate 69 homeless individuals most at-risk of contracting COVID-19. In addition, the city installed 18 trailers and renovated a four-bedroom house for their needs.
The bad: Social distancing rules have meant that Berkeley has had to pare down the number of people served by each shelter, leading to fewer services.
Since people are living in the “eyebrows” along I-80, Neumann wants Berkeley to do more and thinks Arreguín should show leadership. Even though the land belongs to Caltrans, the public works department could pick up garbage more often, which would reduce the rat problem.
“The question is ‘how do we treat the people who inevitably are going to be outside?’” said Neumann. “How do we make their lives as livable as possible, reduce the impact of living outside for them and their neighbors?”
Neumann does appreciate Arreguín’s resistance to dispersing the I-80 encampments especially now when the impending election has placed pressure on him to do something, he said.
But Arreguín’s concern about the encampments continues and he said they are going to be cleaned very soon. Caltrans already moved people from land near Gilman and erected a fence. The state agency started there because there have been 10 fires in the area in the last few months. University Avenue is next.
“I don’t envy him,” Droste said of Arreguín. “It’s easy to criticize but it’s hard for people to come up with solutions.”
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