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A small group of faith group protesters held a sleep-in on BART Plaza following prayers and speeches. Photo: Ted Friedman

An estimated 60 members of faith groups gathered at the Downtown Berkeley BART Plaza Thursday night to protest proposed new laws that they claimed would “criminalize the homeless.” Prayers and speeches were followed by a small number of the protesters lying down to spend the night sleeping in the plaza.

“Jesus probably would be criminalized by these law if he lived in the City of Berkeley,” said Pastor Michael McBride, founder of The Way Christian Center, who gave the opening prayer at the protest. “The era of criminalizing people need to end. We’re still using old tactics to deal with modern problems.” 

Protesters from various faith groups join hands at the start of the protest against proposed new laws on street behavior. Photo: Ted Friedman
Protesters from various faith groups join hands at the start of the protest against proposed new laws on street behavior. Photo: Ted Friedman

McBride’s opening prayer was followed by singing and a brief meal of broccoli soup and matzoh. Readings from sacred texts — Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim — were followed by faith messages. The gathering was emceed by young people from Youth Spirit Artworks, whose executive director, Sally Hindman, was one of the protest organizers.

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.

Berkeley currently spends about $3 million a year on homeless programs.

“I frankly don’t think they’re going to solve the problem of visible homelessness in Berkeley,” said Councilman Jesse Arreguín, who attended part of the protest and who voted against the City Council proposal on March 17. “Housing is ultimately the solution. We can’t keep dealing with these stop-gap measures.”

“The interfaith religious community collectively has deep feelings about justice and compassion for all people,” said Hindman. “The city process has been so fast. We want the city to know how strongly we feel.”

“It’s a terrible shame that this city turns its back on the homeless, the poor, the hungry,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, from Beyt Tikkun Synagogue. “It’s an outrage.”

Faith groups to sleep on street to support city’s homeless (04.09.15)
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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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...