Police survey the aftermath of a debris fire at Old City Hall on Tuesday. Photo: David Yee ©2018

Berkeley police have arrested one person in connection with a Tuesday fire at Old City Hall, and have posted notices of violation telling homeless campers on the front lawn to clear out immediately.

BPD arrested William Edwards around 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday on suspicion of causing a property fire, drug possession and violating his parole, online records show. Department spokesman Sgt. Andrew Frankel said Edwards was arrested at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Russell Street, 12 blocks from the scene of the small debris fire, and booked into the Berkeley Jail.

Wednesday, around 8:45 a.m., police posted notices, and passed them out to each person living at Old City Hall, warning campers at the 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way property that lodging there is illegal.

“Please take this opportunity to immediately collect your belongings and leave this location,” the notes, taped to trees and signs, say. “The City prefers not to have to resort to citation or arrest to gain your compliance with this notice. However, absent voluntary compliance, failure to comply may result in citations and arrest.”

There is no specific deadline listed for the move-out, but Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko said, “They need to leave right away.” He said the fire Tuesday, along with other safety complaints, prompted the city to take action after leaving the campers be for three months.

“We’re lucky there is not more damage” from the Tuesday fire and another fire in January, Chakko said. “These are two significant safety concerns. We’re treating this as an urgent issue.”

Berkeley police posted notices ordering homeless campers to move out of the Old City Hall lawn on the morning of Feb. 7. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Later Wednesday morning, several residents of the various camps in the area were sitting on the steps and hanging out by their tents in the sun. Nobody seemed to be in a rush to pack up.

“We’re ignoring it,” said a man who goes by the name Jim Squatter. He is a member of First They Came for the Homeless, an encampment that identifies as an ‘intentional community.’ It prides itself on its self-sufficiency and has rules banning illegal activity in the group.

The camp moved to Old City Hall, where the council meets, in early November, after the Bay Area Rapid Transit District ended the group’s long stint at the “Here There” installation by the Berkeley-Oakland border. (The land belongs to BART.) A First They Came for the Homeless legal complaint against BART was dismissed, but the federal judge who heard that case has allowed a connected lawsuit against the city to continue.

There was at least one person already living at Old City Hall when First They Came for the Homeless moved in. Shortly after the group got settled, other camps popped up on the lawn. One group, campers say, goes by the name “Dare 2 Change” and is run by a woman called “Mama,” who has reportedly successfully helped many other residents get sober. After the fire, campers said the person responsible for the incident lived at a camp on the other, northern, end of the lawn.

Paul Kealoha-Blake, a Berkeley homeless advocate, said he was the first person, other than “the individual who claimed responsibility for the flames,” to see the fire Tuesday afternoon. He said he rushed up the stairs toward the 3- to 5-foot flames, and tried to help put them out. After there were three audible explosions, a camper told him to stop. When police and firefighters arrived on the scene, First They Came for the Homeless contributed a fire extinguisher to the effort, Kealoha-Blake said.

First They Came for the Homeless members said they were resentful they have been blamed and punished for the fire.

“If somebody else in your apartment building does something wrong, do you get evicted?” Squatter said.

The city has long said it enforces rules against encampments where there are health or safety concerns. The mayor’s ad-hoc committee on homelessness is also working on a new encampment policy that would clarify rules and possibly allow more active enforcement.

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,...