The city of Berkeley is looking to create a permit program for RV campers in the latest effort to respond to neighborhood concerns about an influx of encampments in West Berkeley.
Earlier this year, the city repeatedly cleared out a large RV camp at the Berkeley Marina, sparking a wave of complaints from the campers themselves. The city has said it wants to find a long-term location where the RVs could set up, but has not yet identified an appropriate spot.
Tuesday night, Kirsten MacDonald of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce said there are now more than 70 RVs in northwest Berkeley’s District 1: “A permitting system needs to be put in place so one district doesn’t get the brunt of an entire community descending upon their streets.”
Members of the camp said they have nowhere else to go, and that the city needs to step up: “Trying to deny that you have a native homeless population, who dares to shelter ourselves in vehicles and/or trying to legislate us into nearby cities is not the way to show voters or your neighbors that you are serious about ending homelessness,” said longtime local resident and homeless activist Amber Lynn Whitson in an email to council this week.
Councilwoman Linda Maio’s office put forward the proposal to ask the city to “look into how other cities use permitting to manage RV parking and suggest a permit process that Council can consider to enable RV parking but place some sensible limits.” The proposal describe’s Antioch’s permit program as one possible approach, and “requests consideration of a 2-week permit.” (Maio represents District 1.)
The Chamber said it has received a range of complaints from local businesses due to deteriorating conditions in the neighborhood: “Such negative impacts include making parking spots rare for employees and residents, waste containers getting poured down storm drains, evidence of campers urinating and defecating on public sidewalks and/or private property, and feeling unsafe around campers who are exhibiting mentally ill or otherwise aggressive behaviors.”
“You created the problem” by making RV dwellers leave the marina, one speaker told council Tuesday night. “This is just another really good example of how you really blew it.… It’s time for a sanctioned RV camp in Berkeley.”
Members of the business community who spoke said they support the concept of a sanctioned encampment — but said it needs to be located somewhere else.
A representative from The Potters’ Studio, at 1221 Eighth St., said there are 10 RVs and “a number of vans,” as well as trailers and boats, taking up an estimated 25 parking spots on the block.
“It goes around the whole area,” the man told council. “We need the parking — that’s our issue.”
Maio said the issue had reached a breaking point because of the number of campers who have moved in over the past few months.
“If there were just a few RVs here and there, or vans or whatever, I don’t think we would be hearing anything. People would just roll with that, and they have for quite a long time,” she said. “But there are many, many, many more now, and more are coming all the time. I’m getting at least three or four horror stories every day, not just about parking, not at all.”
Mayor Jesse Arreguín apologized to meeting attendees for not yet having been able to move forward on the sanctioned camp. He said it was not for lack of trying, however: “I can assure you, if we had found a location, we would be moving forward as quickly as possible to set up that program.”
One public speaker told council that complaints about parking and dogs seemed petty when RV dwellers have much bigger problems. He said the permitting process was simply an effort to criminalize “people who have nowhere else to go.”
Council members said Berkeley may have to look outside the city limits, perhaps in jurisdictions that have more space, to set up a sanctioned camp. Councilwoman Kate Harrison said Berkeley must push forward on that effort, despite the challenges.
“We have to stop fantasizing that there will be a place where no one will be bothered,” she said. “I think it is incumbent on us to find a place for an RV park.”
Maio said wherever the campers end up must offer humane conditions and resources such as pump-out facilities, sanitation, water and power.
“We are faced with this because we are in a cruel and unjust economic situation that gets worse all the time,” Maio said.
Councilwoman Cheryl Davila said she could not support the Maio proposal because of the possibility of the two-week time limit.
“Until we find a solution, I think a permitting process without a timeline is the way to go,” she said. She said her office already held one meeting to work on finding possible locations for a sanctioned encampment and plans to hold another one in October.
Davila added that people living in their vehicles should be accorded as much respect as others in the community: “We can’t state that they’re not Berkeley residents just because they live in their cars.… That’s another form of disrespect and discrimination.”
Davila voted no on the proposal, while the rest of the council voted to approve it. Councilman Kriss Worthington had already left for the night.