Shattuck Avenue is one area of Berkeley where the homeless most commonly congregate (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso
Shattuck Avenue is one area in Berkeley where the homeless commonly congregate. Others include Telegraph Avenue and other commercial areas. Photo: Emilie Raguso

By Francesca Paris

On Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council is set to consider new recommendations that would focus the city’s approach to homelessness on supportive services and, in particular, housing.

Council will consider a report from the Berkeley Homeless Task Force — initiated by Councilman Jesse Arreguín in 2013 — that proposes a series of immediate and longer term recommendations for the city in its efforts to end homelessness. The task force has been meeting under the leadership of Genevieve Wilson and David Stegman since August 2013.

Read more about homelessness in Berkeley.

One of the task force’s priorities is to find ways to move from what it describes as the “criminalization” of the homeless to a more supportive approach.

“It is clear that providing services, rather than … criminalization, is both cost effective and ethical,” states the report. “It is up to Berkeley to provide adequate services now. Failure to do so will only further drain resources and funding without dealing with the root causes of homelessness, causing an endless spiral of homelessness and wasteful spending.”

Arreguín announced the creation of the task force after a measure on the November 2012 Berkeley ballot failed that would have banned sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts. Opponents of Measure S argued that it treated the homeless like criminals. The debate around the measure triggered a citywide conversation about the homeless. In April 2013, Arreguín, who had previously put forth the Compassionate Sidewalks Plan to develop solutions for homelessness in Berkeley, proposed an independently convened community task force on homelessness.

Repeated attempts to reach Arreguín before press time were unsuccessful.

The task force recommends that the city’s top priority should be to adopt a “Housing First” goal and increase the availability of housing and housing subsidies for the homeless.

The report divides the recommendation into two categories: tier one recommendations, which the task force identified as “critical” and which could be implemented immediately if funded by the city, and tier two recommendations, which “require additional study and involve longer term implementation.”

The tier one recommendations are to expand the city’s Homeless Outreach Team from its current staffing of one full-time employee; expand the city’s Mobile Crisis Unit beyond what is proposed in the 2016-17 budget to increase coverage (the report cites a recent Berkeleyside article stating that mental health calls are the number one drain on police resources); fund increased Crisis Intervention Training for local police officers; expand the number of public restrooms in Berkeley’s commercial districts and public spaces; establish additional storage space for the homeless; and establish more Warming Centers to allow homeless to get off the streets during the winter.

The tier two recommendations focus on housing: rehabilitate single- and multi-family properties or properties at risk of conversion to market-rate housing as housing for the homeless; open a short-term center similar to the Navigation Center in San Francisco for short-term housing to help homeless stabilize and find housing and services; and explore alternative housing options for the short or long term, such as tiny houses, micro units, boats or sleeping in vehicles.

Raising concerns about proposed cuts for programs for the homeless in the 2016-17 fiscal year, the task force advises council to restore cuts for a number of existing services, including the BUSD Homeless Student Program, before putting money toward new services. It lists budget recommendations for existing and new programs. The report also contains a list of possible funding sources, including the establishment of a vacancy tax on ground-floor commercial space, and expanding the hours of enforcement for parking meters downtown and on Telegraph Avenue to 8 p.m.

The report says there has been a continued growth in homelessness in Berkeley over the past 30 years, despite efforts that resulted in a 48% decrease in chronic homelessness in 2009. The results of a 2015 count of homeless people in Berkeley have not yet been released, though they are expected in the fall. Figures from 2009 found 824 homeless people in Berkeley. The task force cited a 2009 survey that found that 41% of Berkeley’s homeless had a mental illness, compared with 30% in Alameda  County, and that 40% were chronic substance abusers, compared to 36% in the county.

The task force also cites a February 2015 report by UC Berkeley’s Policy Advocacy Clinic questioning the effectiveness of what it calls “anti-homeless laws” in California. The group wrote that current anti-homeless laws restrict access to a social safety net, affordable housing and employment opportunities, and perpetuate a cycle of poverty and homelessness.

More than 70 people attended the task force’s first meeting in 2013, which was open to the public. Attendees split into subcommittees to address priorities they had identified in an initial survey of community members. For the next year, the subcommittees met regularly to discuss potential solutions. From October 2014 through March 2015, the task force held workshops on issues such as mental health services and the criminalization of homelessness, after which it developed its comprehensive list of recommendations.

Council is set to consider the report at its 5:30 p.m. special session tonight, June 23. No action is expected.

[Editor’s Note: This story was updated after publication to clarify how the task force, which was initiated by Councilman Jesse Arreguín, came about.]

Francesca Paris, a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a Berkeleyside summer intern.

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Francesca Paris, a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a Berkeleyside summer intern.

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