Man in his 60s in a red shirt sits on a mat on the sidewalk, next to crates with some stuff on top of them.
Phil Woodruff sits on Shattuck Avenue by his belongings, which he packed up in crates to comply with a new Berkeley ordinance. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

One morning. Two blocks apart. Two different responses to the city’s new sidewalk rules.

At Shattuck Avenue and Parker Street on Thursday, police and city workers were busy enforcing a new law against taking up sidewalk space with tents and piles of objects. A half dozen officers watched as people who’d been sleeping on the corner for the better part of a year begrudgingly packed up their possessions and gathered up others for the trash.

“Where are we going to go?” Samuel Murray wondered out loud as he surveyed his mounds of things.

Just north of the scene, at Dwight Way, another homeless man had taken steps to avoid that sort of operation. He had neatly packed his sparse belongings into small crates, and was waiting until nightfall to spread them out again, in compliance with the new rules.

At the Parker Street site, Kristen Lee, assistant to Berkeley’s city manager, stood with a clipboard around 11:20 a.m., monitoring the clear-out.

“These folks have been here for quite a while,” she said.

The small encampment at that corner was among the many that received notices beginning in April that they were in violation of the new sidewalk ordinance. The October 2018 rules — the result of years of debate and previous iterations — limit the number of personal items people can keep on the street during the day.

Proponents say the ordinance is a reasonable response to the piles of objects and trash that often obstruct accessibility on Berkeley’s busy sidewalks. Opponents say the policy criminalizes homelessness, making life on the streets even more difficult.

Police and city workers stand watch around an encampment at Shattuck Avenue and Parker Street, after ordering the residents to clear out. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In commercial areas like Shattuck Avenue, objects can’t be left unattended for more than two hours, and they can’t block access to transit stops, driveways, trash cans and other public features. During the day, they can’t be placed in front of building entrances.

Under the new policy, enforcement officers can tell people to condense their belongings into a 9-square-foot area, and can remove the objects or issue citations and infractions if they don’t. Officers can’t remove objects overnight, and must give 24-hour notice unless there’s an immediate safety issue.

Because of its length of stay, this particular group at Parker Street was also identified for “encampment resolution,” Lee said, meaning the city told the campers to clear out for good, not simply until nighttime.

“Anytime we do that, we also give people a chance to pack up what they want,” Lee said.

About a half hour into the operation, the tent was still pitched. Inside a small table was topped with cups of soda and candles. Tarps and rugs lay in crumpled piles outside the tent, along with crates packed tightly with objects.

Murray said he’s been living with his wife at Shattuck and Parker for about eight months. He moved to Berkeley from New York about a year and a half ago when his sister, who was already here, told him he’d have a place to live.

“I ended up living in a tent,” he said, bending down to move some of his items. “This is all going to go now. That’s not trash.”

Murray told the police officers that his friend would be arriving with a truck to haul out what could fit in it.

He said city workers had treated him decently during the enforcement process.

“They were nice to me. They didn’t bother us until this new ordinance. And they gave us time” to leave, he said. “But I had hand surgery and had to wait. I couldn’t just up and do it.”

During the clean-up process a woman who was in distress was yelling at the police and city workers at the site. It was unclear whether she had also been living there.

Murray said he doesn’t know where he’ll be sleeping from now on, and doesn’t think the options are sufficient.

“All that spending has not been used properly,” he said.

A tent is pitched on a sidewalk. There are many items on the ground around it. Police stand in the background.
People who had been living in a tent for months on Shattuck Avenue spent Thursday packing up their things. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“It feels like you’re married to this garbage”

Two blocks north, Phil Woodruff was sitting calmly on a sleeping pad next to the bus stop at Shattuck and Dwight.

He began living there about a month ago, right around the time the new ordinance took effect, he said. Homeless for 10 years in the Bay Area, Woodruff previously slept near the Visit Berkeley tourism office on Addison Street, so he could easily access the YMCA, he said. He used to work in radio and engineering, he said, and currently has photos displayed in the “Creativity Unhoused” exhibit at Expressions Gallery under the name James Wood.

Woodruff said he and his tent-mate consolidate their belongings when they know the city might come by.

His items were in crates Thursday morning, while his friends’ were wrapped up in a tarp and secured with bungee cords.

“It’s made my life harder,” Woodruff said of the new ordinance. He feels like he has to stay next to his crates when they’re neatly packed like that, so nobody will come steal them — and the law doesn’t let him leave for more than a couple hours anyway.

“It feels like you’re married to this garbage,” he said. “I’m 65, and I have to shower and wash my clothes.”

On a sidewalk plaza, there is a tarp wrapped around a pile of stuff. A few feet away, a man sits on a sleeping pad next to some crates.
Phil Woodruff, pictured, and his tent-mate each pack up their things neatly on days when they expect city workers or police to come by. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Woodruff said he has a litany of physical disabilities.

“By the time [the packing] is done, my back’s a wreck,” he said. “So I drink more than I should. I get up and get a beer because of all the pain.”

Homelessness ongoing focus and challenge for city

Last month, one homeless group’s charges that Berkeley violated its civil rights by repeatedly clearing out its encampments and losing members’ belongings was rejected by a federal jury.

The city spends approximately $16 million a year on homelessness services, according to staff. City employees figure it would cost another $31 to $43 million to house all the estimated 2,000 people who experience homelessness at one point in Berkeley over the course of a year. In the past few years, the city has opened new shelters and expanded others, including the “low-barrier” Pathways center, a Dorothy Day House shelter in the Veterans Building, and a winter emergency shelter in Old City Hall, which is still in operation.

The sidewalk ordinance was not the only recent city decision decried by homeless residents and advocates, however.

In March, Berkeley banned RVs from parking overnight anywhere in the city. At lengthy public meetings leading up to the vote, RV owners said they’d found a rare affordable way to live and keep to themselves without sleeping on the streets, while business owners complained that they brought hazards to the blocks where they parked.

Last month, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told Berkeleyside that the sidewalk ordinance is not about “removing people.”

“The goal is about voluntary clean-up and condensing,” she said.

Lee said there have been no arrests related to encampments during the city’s recent enforcement efforts.

By early Thursday afternoon, the Parker Street couple was still packing up, she said in an email.

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...