About 50 people have set up tents on the front lawn of Old City Hall to protest news homeless laws passed by the Berkeley City Council last week. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The city of Berkeley issued a cease and desist order Tuesday to residents of an encampment that popped up at Old City Hall on Nov. 16 in reaction to new homeless laws the city is seeking to enact.

The memo, distributed by police to about 50 people living in the approximately 22 tents on the front lawn, cites that penal code section 647(e) prohibits anyone from lodging on public property without permission of the property owner. The offense is a misdemeanor.

“Lodging on the property of 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way is not permitted,” reads the order. “Please take this opportunity to immediately collect your belongings and leave this location.”

But the order seems to have been met with a big yawn by those camping out, many of whom identified themselves as homeless or advocates for the homeless.

“It’s not an encampment, it’s a protest,” said a 29-year-old woman who identified herself as Musik Street Ninja. She said she is from Berkeley but currently has a room in which to sleep in Antioch. “We are protesting the bullshit homeless laws they are trying to pass.”

Added Mike Zint, who said he is the person who called for the camp-out: “This is the commons owned by everybody. We own this property. It’s public property. We are giving ourselves permission to be here.”

Zint predicted police would not roust those camping out on Thanksgiving or the day after, which is a big shopping day. He predicted officers would come to remove the tents Monday.

Mike Zint inside the tent he has set up on the lawn of Old City Hall. Zint said he has been living at the Main Post Office on Allston Way for more than a year and was a main organizer for the current camp-out. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Paul Kealoha-Blake, a volunteer mental-health commissioner for the city, who served on the Homeless Task Force convened by City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, agreed.

“My take on it is they are going to let this stay for now,” said Kealoha-Blake, who was visiting the encampment Wednesday morning. “But all of these occupations have to get moved, and it eventually will get moved.”

Homeless people and some activists first set up tents outside the building last week, on Monday, Nov. 16, to protest a new set of laws council was expected to consider the next evening. Council did adopt some of those laws, which proponents say will encourage civil behavior on the streets, but opponents characterized them as “criminalizing” the homeless.

The new laws, which have not gone into effect yet, limit the space people can spread out their personal belongings on sidewalks to 4 square feet. They ban urinating and defecating in public. They prohibit people from lying in planters or leaving shopping carts in one spot for longer than an hour, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The law expressed the city’s intent to create secure storage facilities in which the homeless can store their possessions, as well as offering mobile showers.

A sign set up by the Old City Hall camp. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Old City Hall camp. Photo: Ted Friedman

The impetus behind the new laws was, in part, due to the deteriorating situation in Ohlone Park, where many homeless people did drugs publicly, defecated in the bushes or in people’s backyards, and left trash all around, residents reported.

The group camping in front of Old City Hall is trying to distinguish itself from that type of homeless person, said Zint. The camp is drug- and alcohol-free (except for people who must use medicinal marijuana). Campers are expected to clean up after themselves. They can’t be rowdy, he said.

In fact, Zint said he and others have already evicted people unwilling to comply with those rules. They kicked out a prostitute who was having sex for money right by the police station, he said. They evicted some meth heads and a gang of bicycle thieves.

Zint said he wants the camp to show people that there are responsible homeless people who are just “like the person next door” but “without a house.” However, those camping out “don’t want the same things the housed want.”

“What I want to do is show the city that the homeless can be responsible for themselves and act appropriately,” said Zint, who had camped out at the Main Post Office on Allston Way for more than a year until last week.

Zint wants Berkeley to designate a spot where the homeless can set up tents and live through the winter. He believes this kind of semi-permanent housing will allow homeless people to save enough money to get a car or find a better housing situation.

Zint said he sent out a nationwide call for more homeless people and their supporters to come to Old City Hall in time for the Dec. 1 meeting of the City Council, which will do a second reading that night of the new homeless laws. He put out a message on the “First They Came for the Homeless” Facebook page, and tweeted on the Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland twitter accounts. He has also asked Veterans for Peace to join. The Brass Liberation Orchestra is supposed to perform, too, he said.

If there are too many tents to fit on the lawn, people will set up tents in Civic Center Park, he said.

The cease-and-desist order sent by the city included a list of shelters where people could go. But those at the Old City Hall camp said they have no intention of going to a shelter.

Kenneth Collier standing next to a sign that members of the Old City Hall camp have erected in response to Berkeley’s order to remove their tents. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Kenneth Collier standing next to a sign that members of the Old City Hall camp have erected in response to Berkeley’s order to remove their tents. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“They are bug-ridden,” said Kenneth Collier, 46, who camped out at the Berkeley Main Post Office for four months earlier this year, then left for San Francisco but returned after someone stole his tent, sleeping bag and wallet. He said he is a former Marine. “They are the worst places in the world.”

While Collier does not like Berkeley’s shelters, he does like the services Berkeley provides. If he had remained in San Francisco after his wallet was stolen, it would have taken a lot of time to get new identification and his SSI payment, he said. But the Social Security Administration office in Berkeley immediately gave him a voucher and he was able to get his monthly $933.40 payment a short time later, he said.

That kind of service is why so many homeless people gravitate to Berkeley, said Zint.

“Half of the homeless people here are not from here,” said Zint.

Berkeley hospitality will be on full display on Thanksgiving, said Collier. There are a number of churches who are offering free Thanksgiving meals and people have pledged to bring food to the Old City Hall camp as well.

“You go hungry in Berkeley, you have personal issues,” said Collier. “I gained so much weight coming here. There’s more to get in Berkeley than anywhere else.”

Read past Berkeleyside coverage related to homelessness.

Op-ed: An open letter on Berkeley homelessness: You are being scammed (11.24.15)
Op-ed: being poor is not a crime (11.19.15)
Berkeley imposes new laws on homeless behavior (11.18.15)
Op-ed: Support the recommendations of the Homeless Task Force (11.17.15)
Council battle brews over street behavior, homelessness (11.17.15)
Op-ed: Striking a balance for the homeless in Berkeley (11.16.15)
Op-ed: Let’s share responsibility for welcoming sidewalks (11.16.15)
Ohlone Park neighbors brainstorm about homeless influx (10.26.15)
Ohlone Park concerns prompt meeting Saturday (10.23.15)
IKEA donates ‘makeover’ to shelter for homeless families (08.27.15)
Berkeley council postpones street behavior proposal (07.01.15)
Berkeley open to proposals to end homelessness, but questions how to pay for them (06.24.15)
Op-ed: Religious leaders support compassionate services, housing for the homeless (06.22.15)
Berkeley authorities respond to fire near Ashby, I-80 (05.22.15)
Berkeley launches donation boxes for homeless people (05.08.15)
Berkeley council votes to curb impacts of homelessness (03.18.15)
Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)
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 city 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 considers ‘visionary’ homeless housing project (09.11.13)
New talks on homelessness in Berkeley start Thursday (08.14.13)

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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...