An Oakland homeless camp in July 2017. Photo: Thomas Hawk

At the end of November, the City Council says it could consider the possibility of sanctioned encampments for homeless residents in Berkeley, with a close eye on recent moves by Oakland to approve “safe haven” sites for them.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison asked for a legal analysis of sanctioned camps from the city attorney, who said it could be provided to council at the Nov. 28 meeting. The Oakland approach includes portable toilets, wash stations and trash pickup, as well as access to housing, drug treatment and job services.

The Harrison request came up during a council discussion about whether to declare a homeless shelter crisis in Berkeley through Jan. 19, 2020. Officials initially declared the crisis in January 2016 to give the city more flexibility to address homelessness, with a focus on city-owned land. City staff has also been working with Youth Spirit Artworks on a tiny house project for the homeless. (A prototype of that project was unveiled over the weekend.)

The Tuesday night vote to extend the declaration was unanimous, but much of the discussion and public comment focused on recent developments at the South Berkeley homeless camp at the “Here There” public art installation at Adeline and 62nd streets on the Oakland border. BART recently moved to evict that camp, and a legal battle has ensued.

With the clock ticking on when the 25 or so residents of the Here There camp will have to move on, many public speakers urged council to protect the camp immediately, and give it official status — or come up with another place for its residents.

“You must tomorrow come up with an alternative for this group,” said Elliot Halpern, a member of the Berkeley/North East Bay Chapter of ACLU of Northern California.

“Be bold in service of what is right,” Andrea Prichett told officials. “What are we if we let some people die on our streets?”

The Berkeley City Council on Halloween. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Harrison and Mayor Jesse Arreguín said they had been trying to come to an agreement with BART to let the campers stay.

“There has not been a receptive audience to that,” Harrison said, of BART. “I’ve had many frustrating conversations with them and they are implacable about this.”

Said the mayor: “We tried to pressure BART to allow the Here There encampment to stay.” Those discussions with BART, around the ownership or use of the property on the west side of the tracks, happened as recently as Tuesday morning, he added. “We were unsuccessful.”

Arreguín continued: “We want the community to know that we did try.”

“Too big to do on the fly”

Councilwoman Harrison initially tried to get support for a motion that would have seen council make a stronger move toward sanctioned homeless camps, but other council members said the idea was too far from the posted agenda item and would have taken too many members of the public by surprise.

Harrison’s motion would have directed staff to create a policy statement saying the city supports encampments as an avenue of emergency shelter.

Councilwoman Linda Maio said that idea would require “a lot more discussion,” and said she would like more information about it before taking action: “It’s just too big to do on the fly.”

Councilwoman Lori Droste said council must absolutely get a legal analysis before moving forward.

“If we sanction an encampment, and something happens on that property, then the city can be liable,” she said, adding that she too felt more public notice is needed.

“I don’t think it’s fair that we take a vote on it when it wasn’t included as part of the original proposal,” Droste said.

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn described the Harrison proposal as “hasty,” and said it would be a “big leap” for the city to make that move.

Ultimately, Harrison withdrew her motion after the city attorney said she could provide her analysis to officials by the end of November.

Harrison then put the room on notice that she means business: “I will be coming forward with something on encampments,” she promised.

Councilman Ben Bartlett said he will work on the proposal too, to come up with criteria for temporary homeless camps with agreed-upon rules.

“We’ll be applying a regional equity lens to it so that the entire city gets to share in that compassion,” Bartlett said.

At least one member of the crowd shouted, “Put it in North Berkeley,” amid other suggestions from the public about possible camp locations.

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila’s remarks were brief: “Can we just sanction First They Came for the Homeless?”

Replied Mayor Arreguín: “I don’t know how we would sanction a property that’s not ours.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington said the city needs to act fast, whatever the course of action, as rain may be approaching.

“As the original author of doing the homeless shelter crisis resolution, I think it is a wonderful idea,” he said, with a smile. But he said, last year, council had a plan for how to proceed, then “went out and actually changed lives.” This year, he said the city doesn’t have a robust plan ready beyond the normal winter shelters.

A conceptual drawing for a new homeless center called Pathways proposed at Second and Cedar streets. Image: Councilwoman Sophie Hahn

Council is working on getting its new West Berkeley homeless shelter up and running, but officials and staff previously said it might not open until February.

“We don’t know what month that is going to be ready and we don’t have a plan spelled out,” Worthington said. “What are we going to do this winter?”

The ad hoc committee on homelessness, run by the mayor, is also set to look at the sanctioned encampment issue, in line with council direction. Arreguín chairs the group, and officials Sophie Hahn, Linda Maio and Cheryl Davila are members. (Open government rules limit the number of council members that can take part.) Meetings are open to the public but it hasn’t always been clear when or where they take place because that information is not posted on the city website.

Worthington clashed with Arreguín and Maio on Tuesday night when he took aim at the ad hoc committee and said he wasn’t sure if it is the best way to proceed. Worthington said participation in the group gives several council members “exclusive” access to the mayor, as well as more of a chance to shape council policy and the city’s subsequent action.

“I think we need a more inclusive process that includes all the ideas of the council members,” he said. “I think we have a dysfunctional system in place and, to continue putting all of our eggs in that system, it hasn’t created the results that we need.”

Worthington said he’s also gotten “alarming” reports that the meetings haven’t always been open to the public. Arreguín said that wasn’t true.

Maio said a lot of thought had gone into the ad hoc committee and that much has come of it, including the paving and electrical work now underway on Second Street to create the new Pathways homeless shelter. She said the entire council has voted, in public, on the ideas that have come forward through the ad hoc body.

“This work has actually happened with these four council members,” she said. “Input is always welcome…. I would ask you not to just denigrate the work of the committee that’s been trying hard to do something that’s very hard to do.”

Harrison said she continues to be concerned about the city’s winter plans.

“What I’m worried about is it’s November, that’s my whole thing,” she said. “I just want to know what we’re going to do between now and January.”

Mayor Arreguín said it is his understanding that “Pathways will be open during that time.”

KPFA reported Wednesday morning on Twitter that, as part of the recent Here There lawsuit, a federal judge has ordered Berkeley to submit “a practical plan” by Nov. 28 as to how it will shelter its homeless population over the winter.

“Do not simply recite the programs the City purports to offer, for they are admittedly insufficient,” Judge William Alsup wrote. “Submit a plan that will shelter substantially all of Berkeley’s homeless.”

The judge also ordered attorney Dan Siegel, who is representing the campers who filed suit against BART and the city, to “Name soccer fields and open spaces he would convert to tent cities.” Siegel had criticized the city, during a court hearing Tuesday, for turning West Berkeley land into soccer fields, not homeless shelters. In his order, the judge continued: “Failure to be specific may be a sign that there is no practical solution.”

(This story was updated shortly after publication to include excerpts from the document posted online by KPFA. Elliot Halpern’s affiliation with the ACLU was also clarified after publication.)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...