The Bay Area Rapid Transit District has put two South Berkeley homeless camps on notice that it’s time for them to go.
Trespassing signs went up Saturday at the camps, which straddle the BART tracks near the Berkeley-Oakland border. Campers were given 72 hours to leave, and have been informed, via fliers on wooden posts and scattered tree trunks, that they are occupying illegal encampments. Some of the signs were later pulled down, but BART workers have put them up again. Responses to the notices have varied.
“We’re going to leave,” said Milam Schultz, 62, who stays on the east side of the camp with his Rottweiler, Hotrod. “We don’t want to but we have to.”
Numerous campers on the west side of the tracks say they aren’t going anywhere without a fight. The area is commonly known as the “Here There” camp due to the large public art installation on site that spells out those words. Three men have filed what they’ve said is a preliminary injunction, or temporary restraining order, against the BART advisory. They expect to have a hearing in federal court in San Francisco this week.
“It’s all a bunch of jailhouse lawyers doing our best shot,” said Jim Squatter, one of the plaintiffs.
The “Here There” camp established itself in January after some of its residents had moved through various sites in Berkeley in 2016 in what at one time was called the “Poor Tour.” The homeless campers said they were protesting the city’s approach to providing services, and simply wanted a place — free of drugs and alcohol — to organize themselves. The “Here There” camp has received a fair amount of public support, and managed to get portable toilets installed up the block with help from the broader community.
In the past few months, the camp faced challenges after longtime organizers Mike Zint and Mike Lee received housing placements. Some of the folks left in charge ran into obstacles, and conditions deteriorated, according to campers at the site Monday. But those issues have been addressed and the “Here There” camp is running smoothly again, they said.
63rd and MLK
On the east side of the tracks, at 63rd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, just up the block from a busy Montessori school, things haven’t gone so smoothly. Neighbors and members of the school community have been pushing officials to take action to shut down the camp, citing problems with drug use, public defecation and public masturbation. Earlier this month, a 40-year-old Deaf woman was found dead in a tent in that camp. For many outside the immediate neighborhood, it was the first time they realized there was a second camp along the tracks.
A small memorial to the woman who died was still set up there Monday: drying flowers, a tall yellow candle, a bottle of red wine. There were about 15 tents, but not many people in sight. Ryan Maddry, 27, and his girlfriend Rachael Kuebler, 41, told a visitor they had moved there about three months prior because it was clean and peaceful. Maddry said the campers make a point to “stay behind the trees here, to leave room” for families who might want to bring their children, or their dogs, to the large flat expanse of open space that stretches east from the tracks. He said he’s never seen anyone do it though.
Maddry said the area under the trees along the tracks was actually his first campsite in Berkeley, six to eight months prior, when he just had his sleeping bag and no one else had moved in. By July, there were perhaps six tents there. And it has grown.
“The last month, it’s kind of exploded,” said Maddry, who is from Tennessee. “When it exploded like it did, I knew it wasn’t going to be good.”
Kuebler said BART installed the first flurry of notices Saturday around 6 p.m. Authorities came with more signs Sunday, and were back again Monday. The couple is planning to obey the eviction notices, he said.
“Me and my buddy are scouting out new spots,” he said. But the constant moves are tough: “It gets pretty old pretty fast.”
Campers on both sides of the tracks made it clear they don’t readily cross back and forth, and Maddry said he would not consider living on the west side. Too strict, he added.
“The whole reason to live outside is less rules,” he said, “to be away from some of the demands and rules of society.”
Neighbors call for change
Neighbors say they have pleaded with officials for months to do something about the camp near 63rd.
“We have been complaining to BART and The City about the constant trouble coming from the campers/squatters. They need to be cleared out,” one woman wrote on the Berkeleyside Facebook page.
At last week’s council meeting, several people connected with the American International Montessori School just south of the camp echoed the desire for action. The school director said the open patch of land “used to be a really nice place for the kids.” But, as the tents have grown, problems have too. The director told officials: “We’re finding needles. We’re finding that … we can’t use the place anymore. It doesn’t feel safe.”
Teachers aren’t comfortable walking past the camp with students to use BART for field trips, the director added, and one mother said she doesn’t feel safe if she has to park any distance from the school entrance. One neighbor told council he has seen “violent behavior, open drug use and public urination,” along with increased littering.
Labi Rabiu, a nearly 10-year resident of the neighborhood, has been part of a local group organizing in response to the camp at 63rd. He said it has been tough to get an official response despite the attempted intervention of South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett.
“BART has repeatedly sent out the same canned email response to every one of us, which boils down to … ‘we are working on it,’” Rabiu said in a recent email to Berkeleyside. He said Monday that the neighbors are sympathetic to the campers and want to see a humane solution to their plight. But he said the immediate area has born the brunt of the issue long enough. Find a place for the people, remove the encampment, he added.
Rabiu said he wants the operation to be peaceful, and takes no joy in the challenges the campers are likely to face. Now, he’s “waiting cautiously” to see what BART does next: “We hope they will follow through. And if they don’t they will be hearing for us.”
The “Here There” camp
Over on the west side of the tracks, a BART worker charged with installing new wooden posts to hang trespassing notices made it clear he didn’t want any trouble.
“Don’t blame me, that’s all I have to say,” the worker said. “We’re just doing what we’re told. That’s it.”
Mike Zint, a longtime camp leader until he moved inside several months ago, said he hopes to see the “Here There” camp win official status through the legal process. Zint said the camp governs itself: enforcing the rules and voting out those who don’t follow them. Zint said the camp has helped expose two serial predators, reunited a teenage runaway with her mother, and cared for a woman with Alzheimer’s who lived there for five weeks before she was identified as a missing person and was taken back to her family.
It’s all about the homeless helping the homeless directly, Zint said Monday. The solutions the city has posed are not sufficient, he added, including a new plan to rent two large modular buildings that can be broken up into homeless dorms in West Berkeley.
Zint has documented many camp challenges and successes in detail on Facebook, and brought many aspects of the “Poor Tour” and his “First They Came for the Homeless” activist group to light through social media. Sunday, he posted an open letter from ally JP Massar to the BART board. Massar wrote that the “Here There” camp has had significant neighborhood support and “recently obtained … the ability to access a porta-potty and a handwashing station. They have a short list of rules that govern behavior (e.g., noise curfew hours, no drugs).” He continued, “These people have no place to go. There are no excess shelter beds in Berkeley.”
Jay, a camper who’s been at “Here There” for four months, said the goal is still to create a model camp that makes a difference. About 24 people live there now. He cleans the sidewalk nightly, and another camper handles much of the refuse. There are weekly meetings to discuss issues as they arise.
Jay said he first noticed BART representatives on site about two weeks ago taking photographs, and taking stock of the situation. It’s possible they had just realized the area belonged to them, Jay added.
Monday, campers discussed the question of land ownership amongst themselves. It had seemed earlier it was the city of Berkeley that owned the property outside the tracks. But a deeper look at the documents, campers said, indicated the strips on both sides of the tracks, where BART rises from and drops underground — and makes its way between the Ashby and MacArthur stations — actually belongs to BART.
BART did not respond to multiple requests for information and comment Monday about its plans for the property along the tracks. The city of Berkeley confirmed that the area belongs to BART, and had no further comment.
“Here There” resident Sam Clune said BART “took the census” two weeks ago when its team showed up to figure out who lived on site. Two social worker-types were part of the group of officials, he added. But he said he believed plans to shut down the camp had been in the works since at least August. Clune, who has built a small structure for himself and his dog out of plywood and foam, said he’s very concerned about losing his property — “all life’s possessions” — in the eviction.
“Where do I sleep?” he asked. “A doorway on Shattuck I suppose.”
That’s where he slept before moving to the camp in February or March, after being homeless in Berkeley and Oakland for the past six years. Clune said he used to be a salesman, but now is on disability. Others in the camp, he added, are struggling with diseases such as Parkinson’s and mental illness. One person is going to have heart surgery, Clune said.
“This is where you go if you’re sick, if your family doesn’t have means and you’re sick,” he said. “You live in a tent because you can’t afford anyplace else.”
Campers have asked supporters to show up Tuesday night at “Here There” in case of eviction enforcement by BART.
“Music and food are expected. Show up early, if you can,” Zint wrote on Facebook on Monday. “Our camp has proven itself over the last 10 months. What we have done needs to be duplicated, not destroyed.”