Homeless people make camp in Civic Center Park as the second Bay Area Book Festival takes place around them, in Berkeley, on Saturday, June 4, 2016. Photo: David Yee
Homeless people make camp in Civic Center Park in Berkeley, on Saturday, June 4, 2016. Photo: David Yee

In one of his first acts as mayor, Jesse Arreguín is proposing to overhaul the way Berkeley addresses homelessness, including rescinding the law restricting people to only occupying a small section of the sidewalk.

In a measure titled Emergency Measures to Address the Homeless Crisis, which the City Council will take up on Dec. 13, Arreguín suggests overturning the law passed by the former City Council. (Its intent was to limit occupancy to a two-foot-square space, but the exact measurements had not yet been codified). He also wants Berkeley to find public land on which people without housing can camp; he wants Berkeley to explore the creation of “pop-up” navigation centers that have fewer restrictions than traditional shelters; and he wants to refine the process in which the city tells people they will be removed from encampments, and how it takes care of their belongings.

And, although this is not on the Council agenda, Arreguín hopes the new City Council, which is more liberal than the last, will discuss whether Berkeley should stop rousting tent encampments until the city has alternative shelter in place. For the past few years, the city has routinely removed people who set up tents in public spaces. But, almost as soon as city workers tear down the tents, new encampments pop up nearby.

Read more about homelessness in Berkeley, including our award-winning SF Homeless Project coverage.

“This is a top priority for my office,” said Arreguín, conveying the sense of urgency he feels to address the conditions of those without housing before winter settles in. “People throughout the city of Berkeley are very concerned about homelessness and want the city of Berkeley to address it. … We are dealing with an emergency situation right now. There is a crisis. We not only have people camping on the Adeline median we have lots of people sleeping on our streets. We need to do something now.”

Arreguín has already decided to amend one of the most controversial portions of the measure currently listed on the Dec. 13 agenda: a push to give $10,000 to the group First They Came for the Homeless to use on developing “tiny homes,” small, inexpensive, mobile structures which some advocates believe can help alleviate the shelter crisis.

Two councilwomen, Susan Wengraf and Lori Droste, had said that they thought that action was illegal. First They Came for the Homeless is not an organized nonprofit, but rather a fluid coalition of people with a Facebook page and website.

“This is a very shocking item because it bypasses our established process,” said Wengraf. “It would be a gift of public funds. You can’t just give people money. It flies in the face of good government, frankly.”

“I don’t support giving them money,” said Droste. “It’s not a 501(c)3, but just a group of individuals. That money would be better spent on a homeless coordinator or an organization that had a performance evaluation completed by staff… Is it fair to fund groups outside of our competitive process?”

Arreguín told Berkeleyside the idea to give First They Came for the Homeless money had come from a measure put forward by City Councilman Kriss Worthington (and which is still on the Dec. 13 agenda). Arreguín said he had added that provision as a friendly amendment to his measure. But he will try and remove it, he said, and move all discussion about funding the tiny houses movement to a different meeting. He did not elaborate on why he wanted it taken off.

An unconscious woman on Shattuck Avenue on Dec. 2, 2016. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Downtown businesses are concerned that the number of homeless people camping on the sidewalks drives away customers. Homeless advocates have pushed back against restrictions on the amount of space homeless people take up. An unconscious woman on Shattuck Avenue on Dec. 2, 2016. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The main gist of the measure is to undo the law restricting how much sidewalk space people can use from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m, which the former City Council adopted in November 2015 as a way to control people from sprawling on the sidewalks in commercial districts along Shattuck Avenue and Telegraph Avenue. Every day and night, people sit on Shattuck Avenue. Some panhandle. Some sell goods. Some just socialize with friends. Many merchants, and the Downtown Berkeley Association, say that aggressive panhandling and intoxicated people repel downtown visitors.

John Caner, the executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, which represents businesses in the downtown area, said his group thinks the City Council should put off an immediate decision about the two-foot-square-provision until after March 7 when a new City Council member representing District 4 will be elected. (The position is vacant because Arreguín once held the seat and was then elected mayor).

“We need a full City Council, particularly some representative for District 4, who can hear from the neighborhood and the downtown community before they take any action of this type,” said Caner.

The delay won’t really matter as the sidewalk measure has not yet gone into effect, said Caner. The former City Council delayed implementation until they could create a storage system where people without homes could leave their possessions.(The Council was not going to decide the exact measurements of the allowable space until then with, according to City Attorney Zach Cowan). The Council is set to consider a measure Dec. 13 that would set up 50 or so lockers in the basement of old City Hall for $50,000 and hire Options Recovery Services to staff it with two people for five hours a day at a cost of $185,000 annually.

Arreguín, however, said that he expects the new council will overturn the two-foot square limitation, which would alleviate the immediate need for lockers. He thinks the current proposal is too expensive anyway and wants to explore a more decentralized locker system that uses facilities operated by existing nonprofits rather than clustering the lockers in one spot. Residents around Old City Hall also have been vocal in their objection to the lockers in their neighborhood, said Arreguín.

Postponing the locker project frees up $235,000, and Arreguín would like to use a portion of that money to restore funding to agencies who once got city funds, but who lost them this year. Specifically, Arreguín wants to restore $50,000 in funding to Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) for its program serving homeless youth from Berkeley schools. The Berkeley Drop-In Center would get $5,722.

Many supporters of Youth Spirit Artworks came out to Tuesday night's Berkeley City Council meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Many supporters of Youth Spirit Artworks came out to an April City Council meeting to urge that the organization be funded at the same level is was in 2015. The Council did not agree to do so. Mayor Jesse Arreguín will recommend restoring that funding on Dec. 13.  Photo: Emilie Raguso
Many supporters of Youth Spirit Artworks came out to an April City Council meeting to urge that the organization be funded at the same level is was in 2015. The Council did not agree to do so. Mayor Jesse Arreguín will recommend restoring that funding on Dec. 13.  Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley staff had recommended against funding YSA because it felt that there was not enough accountability from the agency. “There is no evidence that students are adequately prepared to transition into post-secondary or a meaningful career pathway after program participation,” Berkeley staff concluded earlier this year when recommending the city cut the $50,000 program. “Insufficient staffing for case management support; multiple issues cited with contract compliance; and underperformance with previous contract,” were concerns cited by city staff.

Sally Hindman, the executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks, said that the lack of perfect accounting is a reflection of the youth of the organization and its growing pains. YSA is only nine years old and has seen its budget go from $66,000 in 2007 to almost $500,000 this year. She said YSA is improving its reporting methods.

“The efforts we are making to help homeless and the powerless need to be lifted up, not slammed down,” said Hindman.

Arreguín agreed. “This is a very unique program that serves a very unique population and does important work with homeless youths, which is a community we need to help. I think wiping out all the funding the previous year was a mistake.”

Both Wengraf and Droste question the decision to give funds to YSA. They said that there were many other community organizations that assisted the homeless and had gone through the competitive planning process. Why weren’t those groups getting some of the money, they asked. Arreguín said he believes YSA did go through the process and was vetted.

“I share others’ concern about the fairness of funding any community agencies outside a competitive, evaluative process,” said Droste.

Arreguín’s proposal also has some other new initiatives:

  • It would direct the city manager and chief of police to permit camping on “designated public property,” unless conditions arise posing an imminent threat to health and safety. First They Came for the Homeless has been pushing Berkeley to find a spot where people could set up tents without being ousted after a few days. Berkeley has been looking around for a spot, (and Mayor Tom Bates formed a subcommittee a month ago to explore this issue), but Arreguín wants to formalize it as part of city policy. He told Berkeleyside that the city is looking for a place that is sufficiently set apart so that the encampment would not bother residents or businesses. He is not suggesting spots around City Hall. The people living there would not be allowed just to self-govern, he said. Arreguín said wraparound case management and other services would be offered. The police would monitor the site. “I don’t just want to do the open encampment advocates want,” said Arreguín. “Having something without city involvement won’t work. It has to be structured and it has to have wrap-around services.”
  • Arreguín wants Berkeley to set up “pop-up” navigation centers modeled on those in San Francisco. These are places that have fewer restrictions than typical shelters. Many unhoused people stay away from shelters because they cannot bring their pets or possessions and must abide by strict curfews. The navigation centers allow people to bring their possessions (and many have a lot of stuff) and their dogs. The centers don’t have curfews and allow families to stay together. (And the definition of family can be relaxed). Arreguín is suggesting that an ad-hoc council committee work with the city manager on the idea.
  • Arreguín is also proposing that Berkeley adopt proposals that San Francisco explored that will clarify its “encampment relocation” policies. It would require Berkeley to “identify and offer specific shelter or housing alternatives for individuals residing in encampments before they can be cleared out.” The city would also have to issue a “notice of eviction” seven days in advance of the eviction “unless the relocation is necessary for health or safety reasons.” Similar guidelines are already in effect, said Arreguín. He also wants to create new protocols for the personal items removed by the city. While Berkeley says it preserves items that are taken from encampments, some people say their gear is routinely destroyed.

These policies “will address the concerns raised by the homeless community and advocates around encampment evictions,” Arreguín’s memo on the proposal reads. “This includes not having shelter after the eviction (the city does provide a phone number for services, but most of the time such services are not available or guaranteed), and difficulty retrieving belongings removed during the eviction that are essential to survival.”

Arreguín campaigned on transforming Berkeley’s approach to helping those without housing, but his administration has already been criticized.  On Dec. 2, the day after Arreguín was sworn in, city officials rousted an encampment set up just north of City Hall. Many people, including Mike Lee, a homeless advocate in the camp, were surprised because they thought Arreguín’s election would mean the end of such sweeps. Jacquelyn McCormick, senior advisor to Arreguín, told Berkeleyside that day that the new mayor was not aware the raid was going to happen.

“We were as surprised as [the homeless campers] were,” she said.

Arreguín said that while he had talked to City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley on Dec. 1 about allowing the encampment to stay through the January holidays, she told him conditions had gotten dire. Human feces had been spread around different places in City Hall over a 24-hour period. Although city officials did not blame the encampment directly for the trouble, the implication was there. So Arreguín was aware of the possibility that the campers would be forced to leave, although he was not aware the action would happen 12 hours later, he said. The question going forward is whether to retain the removal policy or suspend it until Berkeley takes some intermediate steps that can get people out of the elements, he said.

Mike Lee of First They Came for the Homeless, sitting beside the site of the camp that was cleared by the city on Dec. 2.2016. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Mike Lee of First They Came for the Homeless, sitting beside the site of the camp that was cleared by the city on Dec. 2, 2016. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Lee was upset by the raid, not the least because he believes his group, First They Came for the Homeless, deals with its own problems. “We are the guys that resolved the problem,” said Lee. “I resolved the problem. Our security team resolved the problem.”

He blamed part of the crackdown on media coverage, including Berkeleyside’s, which he thinks characterizes him and his friends as “drug fiends and out-of-control people.”

“I don’t appreciate that,” said Lee.

He said the press should be asking the city how much each raid costs and what the city hopes to accomplish with the raids. (A recent city staff report said that Berkeley directs about $17.6 million in local, state and federal funds a year to homeless-related services, including direct grants to community organizations, and police and fire services).

Courtesy of the City of Berkeley
Funding for homeless services. Courtesy City of Berkeley

Lee also said the city was lying about who spread the feces, which he called “an error of enthusiasm.”

“This is a political war. Some people are going to take action that I may not agree with, or you may not agree with, but they are going to take action. … When the police department steals thousands of dollars of equipment and terrorizes us every day, there are certainly people who are going to get upset about that. They are going to lash back. The city should be happy that it wasn’t worse.”

Read Arreguín’s Emergency Measures to Address the Homeless Crisis.

Update 10/9: This article has been changed to reflect a clarification from Arreguín. It previously said that he had spoken to the City Manager and knew that the homeless encampment by City Hall would be rousted. He later told Berkeleyside that he was not aware of the specifics. Here is his note below, sent by his assistant Stefan Elgstrand:

“We feel that the part about Jesse being aware that the campers would be removed from the City Hall encampment is not accurate of Jesse’s comments. Jesse did have a meeting with the City Manager on December 1st, and she did raise issues, saying that staff will talk to those at the encampment. There was absolutely no indication however that the raid would take place just 12 hours after this meeting. One could say that everyone knew the raid would happen, as it was well documented that those in the encampment were given notices by the city. But the article gives the impression that Jesse knew it would happen on the morning of December 2nd, which is not the case. It came as a surprise to all of us.”

Update 12/12: A reader alerted us to the fact that the measure passed by the council in November 2015 talked about limiting possessions to a particular amount of sidewalk but did not specify that size. Berkeleyside has changed the article to reflect that ambiguity. To put the rule into effect, the storage lockers had to be ready to come on line and the City Council would have to review the specific space allotment, according to City Attorney Zach Cowan.

City clears out encampment after feces found (12.02.16)
Homeless encampment moved from Civic Center steps to corner across from BHS (11.07.16)
Police roust Berkeley homeless encampment; activists vow to return (11.04.16)
Protesters criticize Berkeley homeless services center (10.07.16)
Berkeley imposes new laws on homeless behavior (11.18.15)

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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...