On most days, homeless youths line up on Shattuck Avenue in front of the Shattuck Cinemas. The City Council will consider a new set of laws affecting the homeless on Tuesday night. Photo: Tracey Taylor
On most days, homeless youth can be found on the sidewalk on Shattuck Avenue in front of the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas. The City Council will consider a new set of laws affecting the homeless on Tuesday night. Photo: Tracey Taylor

A proposal coming before the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday to examine new laws for the homeless is being called Measure S 2.0, and it is shaping up politically to be a repeat of the bruising sit-lie ordinance that was on the 2012 ballot.

Council members Linda Maio and Jesse Arreguín want to ask the city manager to examine a raft of laws that might ameliorate the behavior of the growing groups of homeless youth that frequent Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. Only Arreguín has now withdrawn his support for the measure.

Read Berkeleyside’s March 18 update about the outcome of the vote.

“I definitely recognize there are some challenges on our streets in downtown Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue,” said Arreguín. “I originally thought that adopting laws and increasing enforcement was going to be the best approach, but in thinking more about it I really think without talking about [adding] services and the outreach … we are not going to make a meaningful difference.”

A group of activists and lawyers who successfully defeated Measure S have recently mounted a campaign to stop council from imposing a new set of laws. The group, which has adopted the name “The Streets are for Everyone” Coalition, or SAFE, plans to hold a march and rally Tuesday before the council meeting. They plan to gather at Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street at 5 p.m. and march to the Old City Hall building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way for a 6 p.m. rally. The regular council meeting starts at 7 p.m.

The proposed rules would ask the city manager to:

  • Examine preventing panhandling within 10 feet of a parking pay station
  • Review what other cities do to prevent public urination and defecation
  • Ensure public bathrooms are available, and ask BART to assist in this
  • Look into outlawing the placement of personal objects in planters, tree wells, or within 3 feet of a tree well
  • Look into preventing “deployment” of bedding, tenting, sleeping pads and blankets on sidewalks and the plaza from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Look into prohibiting cooking on the sidewalk

Maio and Arreguín agreed to address the problem at the request of the Downtown Berkeley Association, the business improvement district that has tried to improve downtown in recent years by washing the sidewalks regularly, hanging plants, installing planters, and hiring a roving team of Ambassadors to talk to the homeless population and call service-providers or police when necessary.

In a letter sent to council, John Caner, the director of the DBA, and its board president Suzy Medak, explained that their intent was not to further criminalize the homeless, but to ask them to abide by reasonable standards of behavior.

“Telling folks they cannot urinate or defecate on our sidewalks, or roll out their bedding during the day, seems to be a reasonable requirement,” the letter reads. “We provide public bathrooms for them to use. People can sleep in parks during the day, and in our commercial districts starting at 10 p.m.”

“The alternative seems to be an anything-goes environment, where our police department is unable to consistently enforce current ordinances. And where homeless or other citizens are able to act out in ways that drive fellow Berkeleyans from the public realm, retreating to more comfortable, safer neighborhoods and cities.”

Maio said none of the new rules were part of Measure S, which would have prohibited people from sitting on the sidewalk in commercial districts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. They are just new rules that will help keep the downtown appealing to all, she said. For example, right now there are no laws to prohibit people from setting down a mattress on the sidewalk or sleeping inside a tree well, which damages the landscaping.

“I don’t want to criminalize anyone,” said Maio. “I want to send the message that it isn’t OK, that it’s not no-holds barred.”

Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, and a longtime homelessness activist, said the proposed laws are a form of criminalization of the homeless. Recent studies have shown that sit-lie ordinances and other laws just don’t work, so why create more in Berkeley, he asked.

“The real impact of this ordinance will be increased enforcement on the avenue and the littering of our municipal code with more ordinances,” Neumann said. “That just isn’t a solution.”

Arreguín said there is much more Berkeley can do to work with homeless youth before it imposes new laws. For example, Berkeley only has one homeless outreach coordinator for the entire city. Berkeley needs to do more outreach than that, since talking to homeless people has been shown to be an effective way to get them off the street, said Arreguín, who is planning to propose a 17-point amendment to the ordinance when it comes before council.

In 2009, Berkeley had a homeless population of around 680. The city spends around $3 million a year providing services to the homeless. The city is in the process of building a new housing project for the homeless on Berkeley Way. It would also include emergency shelter and supportive services.

After the rancor of Measure S, Berkeley officials tried to come together to develop a consensus on homeless issues. When Arreguín co-sponsored this measure, it looked like the two political factions on the council would be working together. With his decision to withdraw his support, it looks more like a repeat of the Measure S battle in 2012.

Berkeley works on a consensus homeless plan
Berkeley considers visionary homeless housing project (09.11.13)
Has it gotten harder to be homeless in Berkeley? (01.02.13)
Measure S: Will it help or hurt the homeless? (10.31.12)
Measure S: We can do better with civil sidewalks (09.19.12)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...