Homeless activist Mike Lee, (standing, center) addresses neighbors at Councilman Ben Bartlett’s town hall meeting on Saturday, July 15, at the South Berkeley Community Church. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Homeless activist Mike Lee, (standing, center) addresses neighbors at Councilman Ben Bartlett’s town hall meeting on Saturday, July 15, at the South Berkeley Community Church. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On Saturday, about 100 people showed up to an “emergency town hall” called by Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett to discuss an encampment of homeless activists that has been allowed to remain at its Berkeley-Oakland border site for several months. A few neighbors raised concerns about the camp, which is located under the “Here There” sculpture on Adeline Street, but most made emphatic arguments in support of the city providing a portable toilet at the site, or at least signing off on the group’s plan to fundraise for and buy one itself.

Members of First They Came for the Homeless, the group of about 25 homeless people protesting the city’s treatment of homeless residents, have been petitioning Berkeley for a portable bathroom and garbage collection at the encampment for some time. The effort has earned support from dozens of neighbors and local business owners, some of whom view an onsite sanitation facility as a humanitarian obligation. Others say it would take the burden off of the neighbors who currently help collect the group’s trash and offer up their bathrooms.

“There is no benefit to anybody to deny them Porta-Potties,” said Carole Marasovic, chair of Berkeley’s homeless commission, at the town hall.

A number of neighbors said on Saturday that they would help the group buy a bathroom. First They Came for the Homeless also held a “Party for a Potty” earlier in July, where they raised several hundred dollars. At the town hall, Aaron Nassberg, the owner of neighboring gallery and tattoo parlor Modern Electric Studio, said he would donate one day of revenue to the cause.

“I don’t know how anyone can deny hygiene to someone else. We’re in a triage situation,” he said.

The First They Came for the Homeless protest camp has been at the Berkeley-Oakland border since early 2017. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

Currently, many encampment residents use the bathroom at Sweet Adeline Bakeshop. Representatives from the Lorin Business Association said they had voted to support a portable bathroom at the encampment, but under a permit specifying that the situation was temporary to quell concerns about it setting a precedent.

Bartlett, however, said his concern is not about the bathroom creating a slippery slope, whereby other encampments might be prompted to demand the same treatment — but rather that he thinks all encampments deserve a bathroom, and it would be unfair for the city to only provide one to the most vocal camp.

The councilman told town hall attendees he would work to meet their requests, but said they would be more successful putting a portable toilet on private property in the area rather than going through the city bureaucracy.

“It’s a planning mechanism that takes time. The bathroom is going to happen, but it’s not going to happen quickly,” said Bartlett, who told the group he is empathetic to their plight in part because his family lived in a homeless shelter for a few months when he was a teenager.

Bartlett’s aide, Talia Stender, told Berkeleyside that the councilman has identified Vault Café (at 3250 Adeline St.) and Phillips Temple CME Church (3332 Adeline) as private lots where a portable bathroom could be placed.

At the meeting, homeless advocate JP Massar told Berkeleyside he considers it “complete ridiculousness…that the city can’t do anything even though everyone in this room is in complete agreement.”

Councilman Ben Bartlett (right) speaks with Benjamin Royer, a member of the First They Came for the Homeless camp. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some neighbors did raise concerns about the encampment, saying they worry it could grow and attract people who are unstable or dangerous, and that they fear the city will not be accountable if any problems do arise. In January, a convicted sex offender who had escaped from custody in Washington state and made his way to Berkeley was arrested at the camp, a neighbor noted.

“There’s been a big problem with garbage being dumped on the other side,” said a woman who lives near the camp. “I’m sort of the neighbor that goes on the city website and reports illegal dumping.” She said she supports a bathroom at the site as long as the city oversees it: “It can’t just be a freeform thing.”

For most of the meeting, attendees engaged in a cordial discussion and brainstorming session, but tensions rose a little towards the end, as those who stuck around challenged Bartlett’s insistence that the city could not act quickly to provide a bathroom, and the councilman grew frustrated with the demands.

“Why does the white camp deserve a bathroom first?”

Leah Simon-Weisberg, a South Berkeley resident and member of the Rent Board, asked Bartlett to bring to the City Council a proposal to allow bathrooms at homeless camps if enough signatures are gathered, an idea that previously failed to get sufficient support from the council. (Simon-Weisberg rented portable bathrooms for First They Came for the Homeless in late 2016 when the group was located on the Adeline median near Berkeley Bowl, but they were removed by the city.)

Bartlett agreed to bring the idea back the the council, but said he is frustrated that his district is the one that has to deal with these concerns.

“It’s racism,” he said. “South Berkeley is always expected to bear the burden of poverty.” He also questioned why First They Came for the Homeless should get support while other encampments are ignored.

“Why does the white camp deserve a bathroom first?” he asked. (The majority, but not all, of the group’s members are white.)

A handful of the homeless campers came to the meeting and expressed pleasure with the outcome.

“My concern was we’d come here and occupants of First They Came for the Homeless would be bashed,” said Mike Zint, one of the group’s founders, after the meeting. “That’s not what happened. The community overwhelmingly supports us.”

Zint and others helped launch the “protest camp” in 2014 to call attention to the growing homeless population and to criticize the city’s treatment of homeless residents. They say they run a tight ship, outlawing “tweakers” (drug users), theft and un-neighborly behavior. Many former residents, including Zint himself, have gotten permanent housing or jobs, according to the group.

First They Came for the Homeless has asked the city to sanction an encampment on a site away from residential neighborhoods. The city initially considered the idea but is no longer pursuing it.

Before the camp settled into current site in early 2017, the group was kicked out of more than a dozen other public places. In each case, the city ordered the group to leave due to health and safety concerns, and rousted the campers after they declined to comply. In December, the city cleared out the camp after finding feces spread around its post north of City Hall.

In June, a Berkeley spokesman said the city had left the group alone this time because there had not been any safety complaints about the current set-up. Publicly available data from Berkeley’s 311 line shows some complaints of “homeless activity” and “illegal dumping” in the immediate area, but it is not clear whether they pertain to the encampment specifically.

At the town hall, members of the neighborhood advocacy group Friends of Adeline said they have been providing the group with access to bathrooms and showers, and otherwise monitoring safety and cleanliness at the site.

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,...