University Avenue and Oxford: For more than 25 years, people without permanent housing have panhandled on the street.

It was such a novel idea that newspapers around the country wrote about it.

To help cut down on panhandling, Berkeley merchants would sell 25-cent vouchers in packets of four to customers, who could then hand them out to the homeless. This “comprehensive” strategy, said the Los Angeles Times, would let the homeless people who hung out on Shattuck and Telegraph avenues use the vouchers for bus fare, food, to take a shower or do laundry. With an estimated 800 people without permanent housing in town, merchants sold $1,900 worth of “Berkeley Cares” vouchers in just a few months.

“By all accounts Berkeley’s street people are already eating and even smelling better, and those desperate for hard currency to finance a drug habit are drifting elsewhere,” reported the New York Times.

The year: 2016?

No, it was 1991.

See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project.

It’s been 25 years since the failure of “Berkeley Cares.” In that time, Berkeley has tried numerous ways to reduce the number of homeless people on the streets and minimize their impact on luckier citizens who may be dismayed by seeing men and women walking around or sitting on sidewalks with shopping carts full of stuff.

(From left to right) Downtown Berkeley Associatoin CEO John Caner, Vice Mayor Linda Maio, Berkeley Food & Housing Project Executive Director Terrie Light, and City Councilman Jesse Arreguin pose before making the first donations to the Positive Change box. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
In May 2015, business leaders and city officials kicked off the “Positive Change” program to encourage donations in locked boxes to help pay for social services. It didn’t take long before there were reports of vandalized boxes and questions about the effort’s success. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

The city has used carrots to help the homeless, like “Berkeley Cares” and the “Positive Change” program, which put donation boxes around downtown in May 2015. It has tolerated short-term experiments where those without homes police themselves, like 1985’s Rainbow Village, a car encampment by the Marina (which was closed after two occupants were murdered), and 2015’s Liberty City, a cluster of tents outside Old City Hall.

Berkeley has also used sticks to get homeless off the streets. In 1994, the City Council outlawed lying on sidewalks, a decision endorsed by voters as Measure O. A council elected after that tossed out the rule when faced with a lawsuit by the ACLU. In 2007, there was another measure called the “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative.” It forbade lying on the sidewalk but pledged extra money for services.

In 2012, the council placed Measure S, which would have banned sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., on the ballot. It failed. Last November, in what some critics called “Measure S 2.0,” a council majority voted in favor of stringent rules about how much sidewalk space anyone could use, among other laws. (Those rules won’t go into effect, however, until the city provides storage facilities for the homeless.)

Critics call those regulations — which can result in tickets and fines — “criminalizing the homeless.” Supporters believe they are only asking people who live on the streets to abide by widely accepted social norms that make public space accessible to everyone.

A police officer speaks with a "family" of homeless youth in Berkeley in 2013. Photo: Ted Friedman
A police officer speaks with a “family” of homeless youth in Berkeley in 2013. Photo: Ted Friedman

Despite the myriad approaches, the homeless situation has not gotten better. Numerous “travelers” crowd the sidewalks of Telegraph Avenue. There are encampments of homeless at Willard Park and Ohlone Park, and many other city parks. The people living in their cars, vans and campers play a game of musical chairs with the police. They have gone from Harrison Street to Fourth Street to Second Street to the Marina. And the encampment by the Gilman Street underpass and the frontage road nearby seems permanent.

It’s a “growing problem,” said Councilman Jesse Arreguín, who headed up a task force that took a deep dive into the city’s homeless issues. “Just look on the street, throughout the entire city. It’s not just the downtown and Telegraph. We are seeing encampments in the parks. We’re seeing people camping out in West Berkeley. There is an ongoing encampment under the Gilman underpass. It’s a very tragic situation.”

Every year, Berkeley gives about $3 million to homeless services providers. And some of that money has had an effect. A recent report on Berkeley’s homeless population showed that the estimated number of veterans living on the streets had declined by 40% over six years, from 130 to 78. In just five months, the city’s new streamlined service center to address homelessness has gotten housing or housing vouchers for 17 people.

Yet the number of homeless in Berkeley keeps growing, despite the outpouring of funds and the hard work of numerous service providers like Berkeley Food & Housing Project, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, Youth Spirit Artworks, the Berkeley Community Law Center, YEAH!, and many other organizations. A count performed on Jan. 28, 2015, found that there were an estimated 834 homeless people in Berkeley, a 23% increase over the last count in 2009. And a subset of that figure — those who are living on the streets or in other places not designed for habitation — grew 59% since 2009, up to 568 people. Most of these are older men, both white and African American, and single.

“It’s our own modern-day “Grapes of Wrath,” said Councilwoman Linda Maio, referring to the 1939 John Steinbeck novel about people who leave Oklahoma looking for a better life and spend time wandering from place to place.

People hanging out on Telegraph Avenue in 2011. Photo: Nancy Rubin
People hanging out on Telegraph Avenue in 2011. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Of course, the biggest issue is housing. There just isn’t enough of it, especially affordable housing. With median apartment rents at $3,526, there is no way any homeless person, even one who gets a maximum amount of Social Security for their disabilities, can afford that. People with Section 8 vouchers, which are supposed to let them find low-cost housing, are out of luck. Many landlords who used to rent to that population have stopped because they can get so much more money from market rents. Even living in one of Berkeley’s single room occupancy hotels is expensive.

“There just isn’t any housing,” said Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center who frequently represents the homeless in court. “The problem with homelessness is that there just aren’t any homes.”

Until recently, Berkeley did not prioritize getting homeless people into permanent housing but focused most of its resources in setting them up in temporary shelters. An agency hired by Berkeley, Focus Strategies, analyzed the city’s homeless programs in September 2014 and concluded that Berkeley only funneled 9% of the $3 million it spent annually toward permanent housing. Another 10% went toward rapid re-housing and prevention. (That means, essentially, preventing people from losing their housing due to disputes with roommates, short-term lack of cash, etc.) The bulk of the money, 57%, went to drop-in centers and shelters and another 19% to things like help in finding employment, benefits advocacy, and alcohol and drug services.

Focus Strategies also pointed out that Berkeley had a fragmented and overly complex intake system with multiple entry points that was not only confusing but difficult to navigate and time-consuming.

Earlier this year, Berkeley overhauled its approach to providing homeless services with a shift toward a “Housing First” policy for those who demonstrate the highest need. First getting homeless people into supportive housing — permanent housing with social services on-site — is cheaper than tackling issues such as medical problems and addiction while people are on the streets, experts say. Once they have a secure home, they can focus on long-term issues.

“People are happier if they are housed — avoiding, among other things, the elements and having possessions stolen,” said Matthai Chakko, a city of Berkeley spokesman. “Living on the streets can mean living in crisis. Part of the housing first policy means placing people into housing even when their lives aren’t perfect. There are a number of resources that help people get supportive care once they’re in housing. Those include support for drug or alcohol dependency, mental illness, and other disabilities. If you wait for people to get into the perfect condition before getting them into housing, it doesn’t work.”

“With limited resources, efforts are put toward putting people into housing rather than into services such as garbage or portable restrooms for encampments,” he said. “In terms of delivering services, it’s the smartest and best use of money.”

Intervention on Telegraph Avenue on June 26, 2016. Photo: Ted Friedman
Intervention on Telegraph Avenue on June 26, 2016. Photo: Ted Friedman

In January, the city opened The Hub, run by Berkeley Food & Housing Project, at 1901 Fairview St. It is now the central entry point for homeless people looking for services. Previously, those without housing could go to a number of shelters and outreach programs for help. By centralizing the intake process, Berkeley hopes to gain a better understanding of the homeless population. The priority is to get housing fast to those who need it most.

Council also directed the city manager in April to analyze Berkeley’s approach to homelessness. Staff is already connecting with other cities to add a regional perspective to the crisis, said Arreguín.

“Taking a step back and looking at the big picture and developing a comprehensive plan is really needed,” said Arreguín.

Who are the homeless?

Mike Lee, a homeless man who is running for mayor, put Berkeley’s homeless population into four categories: 1) the tweakers (those who use methamphetamine), and other substance abusers; 2) those with mental health issues; 3) the working poor, those who earn minimum wage and have to sleep in a car or on the street; 4) the elderly. Other suggest another category might be the “travelers,” people who move from city to city following concerts and gatherings. These are usually fairly young people.

Interviews with a number of homeless people living around the Gilman Street underpass show how daunting the task is to transition them to housing. Many of those interviewed by Berkeleyside said they use meth and other drugs to cope. They make their living by walking around town scavenging, or by panhandling. They value their independence. While they want housing, they do not like that they have to relinquish their freedom when they go to a shelter, they said.

“I like being outdoors, I like not paying rent,” one man, who lives at the Gilman underpass, said last week. He would not give his name.

“Shelters are like jails,” said another man, who also declined to identify himself.

A man living under the Gilman underpass last week. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A man living under the Gilman underpass last week. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“I like to go to sleep when I feel like it, not when I am supposed to,” said Thomas Barnett, 55, who has been in Berkeley for 18 years and was living near the Gilman underpass last week.

Explained Neumann, the homeless advocate: “There are people who have simply been on the street for so long they have a claustrophobia when they go inside.”

Plus, some of them like to get high, which is not permitted in the traditional shelter system.

“We are left to our own devices, we have a lot of vices,” said one man, who declined to give his name. “I recycle, get intoxicated, and draw until I figure something else out.”

Others complained about the long waits involved. One man eating a lunch of scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy at Au Coquelet restaurant on University Avenue recently said it can take three hours to get a shower at the Homeless Drop-In Center on Center Street, an observation Mike Lee agreed with.

Another issue is that shelters, as well as places like SRO hotels, often don’t allow people to bring dogs or bulky possessions. And the people who earn money by scavenging have a lot of stuff. Barnett had piles of bike rims and other bike parts piled up in two different spots on the frontage road near I-80 the other day.

“Berkeley Food & Housing is not going to find me enough space,” said Barnett. “I need a workshop.”

Theft is rampant, so many homeless people gather their belongings together and appoint one person to stay by it all day so it won’t be stolen. The watcher is paid in food.

Council members recognize that having a lot of stuff presents an issue for those without homes, which is one reason they decided in November to build around 50 storage bins for the homeless in the back of Veterans Building on Center Street.

Many homeless people are advocating for Berkeley to set aside vacant lots where they can legally put up tents and live on their own terms. Other cities have had some success with this plan, like Dignity Village in Portland. When a group of people established a tent city outside Old City Hall last November, they self-policed the population to drive away the drug users, prostitutes, and troublemakers, they said. No drinking was allowed.

“What I want to do is show the city that the homeless can be responsible for themselves and act appropriately,” Mike Zint, one of the spokesmen for Liberty City said in November.

Maio said the city is exploring allowing those without housing to set up tents in a kind of semi-permanent situation. She declined to say more because it’s early in the process. The trick is finding a large enough space that isn’t too isolated and is close to public transit, she said.

Man in People's Park on June 27, 2009. Photo by Danny Howard/Creative Commons
Man in People’s Park on June 27, 2009. Photo by Danny Howard/Creative Commons

One huge issue is how to allow people who are capable of self-regulating to participate while excluding those who are mentally ill or have criminal intentions, said Maio. Mental illness is a huge problem in the homeless population and it’s very difficult to deliver services to people who may be hearing voices or feeling paranoid.

Current laws only allow people who are about to harm themselves or others to be committed to mental health facilities. Many mentally ill people in crisis refuse services, which is completely legal. Berkeley police estimate that at least 35% of the calls they respond to involve someone on the street with a mental illness. Responding to those kinds of calls is the #1 drain on their resources, police said.

The city would have to be deeply involved in any sort of sanctioned encampment, Maio said. If not, chaos could ensue. When Caltrans officials, the CHP, and Berkeley city workers cleaned out the encampment by the Gilman Street overpass earlier this month, they found human feces, bottles of urine, 250 used hypodermic needles, rotting food and dead rodents. It was a health and safety hazard.

Neumann, the attorney, said that, in many ways, that filth is Berkeley’s fault. Under city laws, it is illegal to sleep outside, it is illegal to be homeless, he said. Because of this emphasis on illegality, Berkeley doesn’t do commonsense things that could reduce the squalor, he said.

Neumann believes Berkeley should take some “harm reduction” steps like putting in porta potties near the Gilman underpass so people have a place to go to the bathroom. (The nearest one is a short walk away at the soccer fields but is so overused that it can be disgusting, according to one homeless man.) Berkeley could put some dumpsters and needle containers nearby, too, Neumann said.

Maio said that is not a viable solution.

“We do not want to institutionalize an unhealthy, unsafe environment,” she said. “I understand people might want that, but that’s not an answer. It’s really unsafe, the traffic is spinning around all the time. That’s not an option for us. It’s not a good place for people to be. We have to find other solutions.”

Some relief in sight

Despite the seeming intractability of the issue, there are some positive developments that may partially ameliorate the situation. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday night to place a $580 million affordable housing bond on the November ballot, according to the Mercury News. Voters in Santa Clara County will also be asked to approve a $950 million bond for affordable housing in November.

The Berkeley City Council recently placed a proposed increase on business license taxes on the November ballot, which could send $5 million a year into the General Fund. Council did that with the intention of using some of the money for housing, said Arreguín. The Berkeley Property Owners’ Association has a similar measure on the ballot, one with a lower tax rate that would generate less money.

If the increased business license tax passes, the city might use some of the money to create a new program that pays for first and last month’s rent, plus the security deposit, for groups of two or three homeless people who agree to pool their resources and live together, said Maio. The city is urging social service workers to look for apartments that might be appropriate, she said,

Berkeley is also on track to build a 94-unit housing complex on Berkeley Way near Shattuck Avenue that would provide housing, along with emergency shelter and supportive services, to the homeless. It’s the kind of innovative wrap-around approach homeless advocates have been pushing for.

Lee and others have been advocating for the construction of “tiny houses,” where homeless people can stay for very low rent. The Berkeley Rotary Club recently donated $2,500 to build one of these houses in a demonstration project in early August. Councilman Laurie Capitelli is also an advocate of the idea and there appears to be some sentiment on the council to allow a tiny house settlement, too, although one with lots city presence.

Gilman Street underpass: For many, the poster child of Berkeley homeless camps (06.29.16)
Would a homeless mayor in Berkeley make a difference for the homeless? (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: The fact sheet (06.29.16)
Berkeley mayoral hopefuls weigh in on homelessness (06.29.16)
Photos: Living on the streets of Berkeley (06.29.16)
Berkeley seeks to house those most in need at The Hub (06.29.16)
Berkeley homelessness: A timeline from 1982 to 2016 (06.29.16)
Berkeleyside will focus on homelessness Wednesday (06.28.19)
Share your questions about homelessness in Berkeley (06.21.16)

Berkeleyside will publish stories on homelessness throughout the day Wednesday. Check back for continuing coverage. Want to share your thoughts on homelessness to help shape future coverage? Weigh in here.


See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project. Read more about homelessness in Berkeley. This story is part of the Bay Area-wide initiative to document homeless issues. This endeavor, The San Francisco Homeless Project, includes 70 media organizations. Connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.

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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 Created California, published in November...