Advocates for the homeless asked the city to consider new services, rather than new laws, for the homeless during a march and rally Tuesday night. Photo: Ted Friedman
Advocates for the homeless asked the city to consider new services, rather than new laws, for the homeless during a march and rally Tuesday night. Photo: Ted Friedman

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to direct staff to flesh out and clarify laws designed to clean up downtown by addressing problematic behavior linked to the city’s homeless population.

The 6-3 vote to approve a proposal by Councilwoman Linda Maio followed more than an hour of public testimony mostly dominated by detractors who said the new laws will only serve to criminalize the homeless, while failing to address the root causes of the issue.

A handful of local business representatives and members of the real estate community pleaded with council to approve Maio’s proposal, saying the situation downtown has become dire. Real estate reps said businesses do not want to locate downtown due to the sometimes violent and rowdy street scene. Members of the business community said customers and clients have experienced fear and intimidation as a result of homeless groups who congregate on Berkeley streets, particularly on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. Many said the situation has declined in recent years and that something needed to be done to make downtown safe and comfortable for everyone.

Read more about homelessness in Berkeley.

Dozens of advocates, homeless individuals and academics who study laws affecting the poor told council that the proposal was misguided, would lead to selective enforcement, and would make it harder for people who are homeless to access needed services and programs that might help them get off the streets. Nearly 80 people addressed council Tuesday night, and most said they were against the recommendation.

Many speakers said new services, rather than new laws, would offer more support to Berkeley’s homeless population. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Many speakers said new services, rather than new laws, would offer more support to Berkeley’s homeless population. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Maio’s proposal outlined 11 issues to address in Berkeley’s commercial areas. Many of them, she said, are already regulated by city laws, but have not effectively been enforced because they are in the city code under a section related to traffic engineering.

“It’s ambiguous. It’s hard to know what the rules really are,” she said. “If people know what the rules are, they actually follow them.”

The Downtown Berkeley Association asked Maio and Councilman Jesse Arreguín for feedback and suggestions regarding a series of items related to some of the most problematic behavior downtown. The proposal includes everything from preventing panhandling within 10 feet of parking pay stations to asking for recommendations to curb public urination and defecation. Other items limit the placement of “personal objects” in public space; prohibit lying down on or near planters; restrict the hours people can put out bedding to 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.; and prevent cooking on sidewalks.

The proposal also asks for a survey of local businesses to determine whether current enforcement is adequate, and for staff to look into extending the hours for transition-aged youth shelters beyond the winter months. (See the full list.)

Initially, Arreguín — who represents downtown’s District 4 — signed on in support of the proposal, but he withdrew that support earlier this week and brought back an amendment to Maio’s proposal that focused on adding new city services for the homeless. Arreguín’s amendment failed to garner enough support Tuesday night to pass.

(Update, March 20: Arreguín said his role in crafting the proposal was limited to his suggestion to add more services to it, including the bullet point related to the potential expansion for transition-aged youth shelter operations in Berkeley.)

Advocates for the homeless rallied and marched Tuesday night before the Berkeley City Council meeting. Photos: J.J. Barrow

Prior to the council meeting, a coalition using the moniker “The Streets are for Everyone” marched through downtown and rallied on the steps of Old City Hall to oppose Maio’s proposal. According to one witness, the march was made up of about 50 people. They were led by a bicyclist in fatigues with an upside down American flag on the back. A four-piece marching band closed the procession.

One sign read, “House Keys Not Handcuffs.” Said another, “Homeless People Matter.”

During the rally, speakers decried the proposed legislation, saying it would criminalize the homeless. They also explained how they have few alternatives to placing bedding and other possessions on the sidewalk.

“You have to carry your stuff to survive,” said one homeless man who called himself Ninja. “You have to worry about your stuff.”

Victor Mavedzenge, who works for Youth Spirit Artworks — a local job training organization — said Maio’s measure was misdirected.

“I call it the sickness of the system that needs to be repaired,” he said. “Homelessness is a disease we must all fight.”

Carol Denney, a performer and Berkeley activist, sang a song she had written about the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), which contacted city officials to ask for help to address the street problem. “The DBA has got its own green shirts to do policing, and wants some anti-homeless laws to help it do its fleecing,” she said. (Watch a video of the performance below, by Lemmy Xplain.)

Council members Arreguín, Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson voted against Maio’s proposal.

Arreguín said the package was unnecessary, given that — in his view — most of the problems brought up Tuesday night can already be addressed with existing laws and resources. He said, if the city does nothing to add services, meaningful change won’t be possible. Arreguín said too that more public restrooms, more outreach and more housing are among the solutions the city should instead consider.

“It’s homelessness itself that’s unacceptable,” he said. “Passing laws and enforcing laws does not solve the problem.”

Councilman Anderson and others said they see Maio’s proposal as a new version of Measure S — Berkeley’s 2012 electoral attempt to prohibit sitting on commercial sidewalks. That measure narrowly failed, when 52.3% of Berkeleyans opposed it.

(In 19 of Berkeley’s 101 precincts, over 60% of voters supported Measure S. Strong support for Measure S came overwhelmingly from the hills and North Berkeley. Precincts with large numbers of students voted heavily against Measure S, as did many precincts in South Berkeley; in three precincts, fewer than 30% of voters supported the measure.)

“I call this ‘Son of S,’ the illegitimate son of S, who’s come back to haunt us here again,” Anderson said. He told the crowd of the new proposal, “This was hatched out of the mind of some people downtown. They didn’t bother to consult you. They didn’t bother to ask you what you needed. And they never will.”

Added Worthington, who said he too is concerned about the criminalization of the homeless and the poor: “I can’t see any city that has adopted such a package and has actually accomplished what they said they were trying to do.”

Shattuck Avenue is one area of Berkeley where the homeless most commonly congregate (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

Several council members said they would have liked the city manager to consider both Maio’s and Arreguín’s proposals.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she saw the items working together to address what she called the “very complex problem” of homelessness: “I don’t think either proposal is going to solve the problem. They’re not in conflict with each other.”

Councilwoman Lori Droste concurred, adding that the city would be wise to consider both proposals. But the council as a whole was unable to reach a compromise to push both items forward Tuesday night.

Droste said, even without Arreguín’s item, the city should move ahead with Maio’s proposal.

“I don’t think this particular measure is criminalizing homelessness. I don’t think it’s draconian. And if it was, I wouldn’t support it,” she said, adding that, in her experience, many people who have struggled to overcome homelessness, addiction and other problems have needed to face consequences before getting help. “There’s nothing wrong in analyzing these issues.”

Wengraf and others said the ultimate aim is for the existing laws that are part of the municipal code to be enforced, and to be applied fairly.

It now falls to the city manager’s office and city staff to sort out exactly what happens next. The item directed staff to refer the issue to the city manager’s office “for implementation.”

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said Wednesday that the whole package will have to come back to council prior to the approval of any changes or new laws. That is likely to mean additional discussion.

Chakko said staff will now evaluate how to address the referral, and will figure out which parts of the item are new, as opposed to those that are already in the city code. At this point, the package is not slated to go to any city commissions or committees for review or feedback.

Council did not set a deadline for staff regarding when the package will come back for review.

Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel contributed to this report. 

Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)
Cluster of police arrest resistant homeless man (video) (02.13.15)
Streamlined housing crisis center slated for Berkeley (10.01.14)
Homeless move to railroad tracks after Gilman ‘clean-up’ (07.30.14)
Rodents, trash prompt clean-up of homeless camp on Gilman; residents ‘scattered’ (07.18.14)
City of Berkeley gives Gilman Street homeless a reprieve (07.10.14)
Caltrans fence forces homeless to find new camp (04.10.14)
Berkeley dumps possessions of 8 homeless people (01.07.14)
Berkeley considers ‘visionary’ homeless housing project (09.11.13)
New talks on homelessness in Berkeley start Thursday (08.14.13)
Berkeley moves towards a consensus homeless plan (01.31.13)
Op-Ed: After Measure S, it’s time to act on homelessness (01.24.13)
Has it gotten harder to be homeless in Berkeley? (01.02.13)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...