First They Came for the Homeless has camped at the Berkeley-Oakland border, in the shadow of the “Here There” sculpture,  since early 2017. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

First They Came for the Homeless, a group protesting the criminalization of homelessness, has camped out at the “Here There” sign at the Berkeley-Oakland border for several months. The lifespan of the tent city is notable in the wake of a string of clear-outs of the group’s previous encampments.

The group of homeless activists has made its way around Berkeley since 2014, on what participants have dubbed a “Poor Tour.” Shortly after forming, the group spent more than a year outside the downtown Berkeley post office to protest the potential sale of the building. After that, they moved to a number of public spaces, including medians on Adeline Street and North Shattuck, and outside City Hall.

Each time they settled, the city, citing health and safety concerns and complaints from neighbors, would order the group to disperse. When they refused to, the city would roust the residents and take unclaimed possessions to the city’s Transfer Station. There were more than a dozen of those disbandments before the group made its way to the Here There sign, the members say.

A Berkeley spokesman said the city has left the camp alone this time because there have been no complaints.

“Our enforcement on encampments occurs when we have documented concerns about health and safety,” said Matthai Chakko in an email. “At this point, we haven’t received those health and safety concerns regarding this site.”

The city and its partners have done outreach at the camp, he said: “Some have been offered housing, and some have been interested in being housed.”

Councilman Ben Bartlett, whose South Berkeley district includes the encampment site, said the group has coexisted peacefully with the neighbors.

“They’ve settled into a place that seems to work for now. They’ve been good neighbors to the community. I hope they stay healthy,” he said.

Pastor Preston Walker invites the troubled into his refuge tent: “You can come and relax. I love to listen.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

About 20 people sleep at the camp at night, and many work during the day, encampment residents said. The protest group’s membership is frequently shifting, and one of its founders, Mike Zint, is among the several who have gotten permanent housing, said participants.

The First They Came for the Homeless advocacy effort has helped bring homelessness to the top of the city’s agenda, Bartlett said. In the winter, the city launched its Emergency Operations Center, a sort of all-hands-on-deck effort to address homelessness and provide immediate relief, including new winter shelter spots.

This year, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn unveiled an elaborate homelessness proposal called the Pathways Project. That plan, which got an early vote of confidence from the city council despite the high projected cost, includes two new shelters with relaxed rules for entry, and a slew of new programs and services to complement them.

Yet even though they may have inspired the new city efforts, the First They Came for the Homeless participants are hardly impressed by them.

They think of shelters as too crowded and paternalistic. The “low-barrier” shelters proposed in the Pathways Project would be a step up, they say because residents could store possessions there.

But “what they do not provide is a place to call your own,” First They Came for the Homeless wrote in an online FAQ. The group wants more affordable housing, but is asking for a city-sanctioned encampment in the meantime: “An encampment provides a limited degree of protection and safety, shelter from the elements in a tent, others to watch your belongings, people to share meals and stories with, and much else.” Berkeley initially considered looking for a spot for a legal tent city, but officials say that is no longer on the table.

Zint and Mike Lee, who ran for mayor in 2016,  have long argued that those in the encampment could self-govern and be self-sufficient if only Berkeley would give them a place to call their own and live peacefully. The longevity and relative stability of the Here There encampment shows that it is possible, say some supporters.

“What makes this encampment special?” JP Massar, a homeless advocate, said in an email. “How has the camp managed to stay cohesive, well-organized and even successful in finding ways to move some of their residents off the streets? Is it almost six months of not having Berkeley cops and other city personnel stealing their possessions and ‘moving them along’? Is it community support? Is it a fluke or is there method to the sanity? Is it all this and more?”

First They Came for the Homeless believes it has a legal case for demanding a permanent encampment and has threatened to sue the city.

“We’re not helpless. We’re an intentional community,” said Lee on a recent morning.

“At this point, our method is going to be to dig in and stay,” said Stacey Hill, a newer member and Berkeley native who participated in Occupy San Francisco and Portland. “No, [the city is] not coming here. Doesn’t mean they’re doing something good for us,” he said.

The members of the camp are protesting the city’s treatment of the homeless and the lack of affordable housing. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

The group’s current agenda is to get a portable bathroom for the site.

“Bathrooms are a real serious issue. We’ve got handicapped people here,” said Hill. The group wants the city to provide a one, but Chakko said there are not plans to do so.

Bartlett noted that despite the group’s prominence, First They Came for the Homeless represents a tiny slice of the nearly 1,000-person population experiencing homelessness in Berkeley.

“They are one of many camps in the city,” he said. “We’re making sure we take care of them but give equitable treatment. All camps deserve bathrooms.”

In December, when First The Came for the Homeless was set up on the Adeline median across from Berkeley Bowl, Leah Simon-Weisberg, a neighbor, and Rent Board commissioner, rented portable bathrooms, including one designed for disabled people, for the group. But they only lasted a few days, as the city soon rousted the Adeline camp.

Simon-Weisberg noted that the portable bathrooms stationed in downtown Berkeley for the farmers market remain there all week. She thinks the city should do the same for the South Berkeley farmers market, which is across the street from the encampment. Portable toilets there would not only serve market-goers but also allow encampment residents some relief and alleviate the burden on neighboring businesses, she said.

First They Came for the Homeless has taken matters into its own hands, planning a “Party for a Potty” to raise funds for a portable bathroom in July. Bartlett said he might man the grill at the event.

In the meantime, many of the group members have been using the bathroom at the neighboring Sweet Adeline Bakeshop, whose staff have been “gracious,” Hill said.

“There are issues involved with the heavy usage for us, but we are trying to work through it all,” wrote Sweet Adeline owner Jennifer Millar in an email. “Many of the residents have become customers. We are grateful for their patronage.”

Members of the First They Came for the Homeless protest camp. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some neighbors have also reportedly opened their homes to the encampment residents, allowing them to use their bathrooms and showers, and picking up some of their trash.

Members of First They Came for the Homeless say they take pains to be clean and “drama-free,” mostly for their own sakes. There is an organized pantry tent, often filled with donated food, and the members make decisions collectively. Those who want to join the camp are vetted and prohibited from using drugs and alcohol or stealing.

“Those are the kinds of things that will get you out quick,” said a resident who goes by the name Jim Squatter. “You don’t even have to have it together — we have several people who are schizophrenic. You just have to be a responsible person. Don’t leave trash around.”

The neat camp is a far cry from how city officials described an earlier iteration that was located outside City Hall. The city shut down that camp in December, saying they had found feces spread on City Hall, as well as piles of garbage, needle caps and offensive chalk messages around the camp.

Visitors to the current set-up may be more likely to encounter bouquets of flowers, incense and prayer candles. One of the newest arrivals to the encampment is Pastor Preston Walker, an alum of Occupy Oakland known for setting up interfaith “sacred spaces” where others can come seek refuge and talk about their troubles. On a recent morning, Walker said he had just joined the camp after being hospitalized for tuberculosis and was still on a mandatory “probation” period while the group determines whether he is a good fit.

Walker’s peaceful demeanor did not match the drone of BART trains barreling by overhead.

“You get used to it,” Hill said.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...