Faith groups to sleep on street to support city’s homeless

BART and the city of Berkeley plan to overall the downtown Berkeley plaza. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A coalition of faith communities will gather on Thursday April 9 at 5 p.m. at Downtown Berkeley BART plaza to demonstrate their support for the city’s homeless population. Some plan to sleep on the plaza overnight. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A group representing more than 40 Berkeley religious congregations will gather tonight to show its support for the city’s homeless population in the wake of proposed new laws that they say would criminalize the homeless, as well as an incident, caught on video, in which a downtown “ambassador”  assaulted a homeless man last month.

Some participants plan to sleep overnight on BART Plaza alongside homeless people. The “Interfaith Actions in Solidarity with Homeless People” protest includes the blessing of a meal and an interfaith service. The event starts at 5 p.m. at BART Plaza at the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street.

“We are deeply concerned at the way the city is handling the homeless,” said Sally Hindman, Executive Director of Youth Spirit Artworks, a Quaker, and one of the organizers of the protest. “This is not in the spirit of [Berkeley’s] traditions. We are one of the richest countries in the world and it’s appalling that we have dozens of people sleeping in doorways.”

A "family" of homeless youth in Berkeley. Photo: Keith Chastain Homeless youth in Berkeley: two op-ed pieces published recently on Berkeleyside address the recent vote by City Council to tackle the impact of homelessness. Photo: Keith Chastain
A Berkeley police officer talks to two homeless people in Berkeley. Photo: Ted Friedman

At its March 17 meeting, the Berkeley City Council voted to direct staff to flesh out laws designed to clean up downtown by addressing problematic behavior linked to the city’s homeless population. 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.

Hindman, who has worked with the homeless for 25 years, said suggested laws that would ticket homeless people won’t address the fundamental problem, which is a need for permanent housing. She said there are two-year waiting lists for housing in Alameda County. “The very last thing we would want to do now is criminalize homeless people forced to live outside in our doorways.”

Hindman cited the case of a 23-year old man with mental-health issues who has been sleeping outside in the Elmwood neighborhood. She has been trying to find him somewhere to go since Jan. 8, but has been told there are no beds in the county. She said some people are nervous about going into shelters, sometimes for psychological reasons or because they are uncomfortable being in large social groups. The Berkeley-based organization Hindman heads, Youth Spirit Artworks, is an art jobs and job training program committed to empowering homeless youth.

The organizers of tonight’s event also said their action had been prompted by a recent violent assault on a homeless man by one of the Downtown Berkeley Association’s private “ambassadors.”

The protest and vigil would have been organized earlier, Hindman said, except that many different faith groups were occupied with significant religious calendar events, including Easter, Passover and Buddha’s birthday on April 4.

In a prepared statement, Pastor Michael McBride of the Christian Way Center, said: “Having just celebrated Easter, as Christians we are gathering to express God’s love and deep compassion for all people — including homeless people.”

“The clear message of our faith is that those who do not care for the poor and oppressed are defiling God’s name,” wrote Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun in the same release.

Zen teacher Gerry Oliva added: “In the Zen Buddhist tradition our practice calls us to selflessness, to peaceful positive solutions, never hurtfulness or violence. We move toward practices of loving kindness. There are multiple creative proposals for approaching the challenge of homelessness in downtown Berkeley we would want the City to support.”

And Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman, Director of the Western Region of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said: “Forty percent of homeless youth are marginalized LGBTQI young people who have left their homes and otherwise been forced out on the street — the very last thing our traditions call us to do is make life harder for them than it already is.”

It wasn’t long ago that an interfaith group gathered in Berkeley to make their views known about a different social issue. In December 2014, several religious communities joined forces to stage a peaceful civil disobedience protest in Berkeley in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The “Night Out on the Street” event will start with the blessing of a meal at 5-5:30 p.m. by Rev. McBride. At 5:30-6:15 p.m. there will be an interfaith service hosted by more than 20 local clergy; the “Night Out Sleeping Vigil,” that will run from 6:15 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 6:15 a.m., will see clergy and members of the interfaith religious community sleep on the BART Plaza with homeless people.

Case dismissed against 2 homeless men after review of Berkeley beating video (04.01.15)
Activists, homeless demand end to campaign of ‘brutality’ (03.30.15)
2 men take plea deals after 1 is beaten on video (03.27.15)
Video: Downtown Berkeley worker assaults homeless man (03.26.15)
Op-ed: In Berkeley, how much tolerance is too much? (03.23.15)
Berkeley council votes to curb impacts of homelessness (03.18.15)
Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)
Berkeley communities of faith join forces for ‘peaceful civil disobedience’ Black Lives Matter protest (12.5.14)
Downtown ambassadors help, monitor homeless (07.02.12)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: