RVs and other vehicles on Harrison Street, from Seventh to Eighth streets, in West Berkeley. Photo: Citizen reporter

Berkeley may have a “safe parking” site for 20 RVs up and running by Nov. 1, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said at a town hall meeting Sunday.

Berkeley is currently negotiating for more than one site and talks are advancing, she told a crowd of more than 100 people who gathered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Harrison Street complex. City Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani had convened the ‘Homelessness in West Berkeley’ gathering. City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson were also there.

The city is not yet ready to announce the location or details of the sites, Mayor Jesse Arreguín told Berkeleyside in an email. He did say the safe sites will not be at the waterfront, however. In addition to these sites, owned by private property owners, the City Council will consider a proposal Tuesday to allow eight to 10 RVs to stay on a city-owned site at 1281 University Ave. (at Bonar).

Rashi Kesarwani and Dee Williams-Ridley at a town hall meeting on homelessness on Sept. 22, 2019. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Before the RV parking sites open, Berkeley needs to better understand the demographics of the people living in the 160 RVs dotted around Berkeley, said Kesarwani. The city has hired Bay Area Community Services (BACS), the organization that also runs the Pathways Navigation Center, to conduct a questionnaire, she said. BACS representatives have knocked on the doors of 63 RVs but have only made contact with 13 households. Two of those had minor children and four had had permanent housing in Berkeley in the last 10 years.

The City Council voted in March to ban RV parking on the street between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The council agreed in July to establish some sites where particularly vulnerable people could park their RVs for up to three months while they searched for permanent housing. Preference for those permits would go to RV dwellers who have children or who once had housing in Berkeley.

“Everyone deserves a safe and permanent home,” Kesarwani told the crowd, which was composed of neighbors, homeless people and homeless advocates.

The city of Berkeley has about 1,108 people without shelter and the majority of them live in West Berkeley, according to a count and survey conducted in January by EveryOneHome. About 815 of the 1,108 are unsheltered, which means they sleep in doorways, in tents, in cars or RVs. About 161 people live in vans, with another 157 living in cars. Between 121 to 266 of those live in West Berkeley.

The streets around the Berkeley Rep meeting space reflect that density. In addition to encampments around the University Avenue overpass, and rows of tents on Eastshore Highway, RVs and vans line Harrison Street and many of the streets that intersect with it. Fires have erupted in tents and the encampments. Many businesses and residents have expressed frustration that parking is scarce and that trash and human waste is left on the sidewalks. They have complained it is difficult to walk in the neighborhood.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t have compassion,” said Steven Donaldson, who lives and works in West Berkeley. “We would like to see everyone get permanent housing.” But “we have to have a limit.”

signs about homelessness
Some of the signs that people carried on a march to a town hall meeting on homelessness in Berkeley on Sept. 22, 2019. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A number of the people at the meeting said it is no surprise that garbage and human waste pile up — Berkeley does not provide trashcans or enough Porta Pottys to alleviate the problem. (Berkeley says there are 26 Porta Pottys and 10 handwashing stations around town).

“Why can’t RVs have trash cans that the city can pick up or have trucks that pump out RVs?” said Ryan Martin, who said he lives in an RV.

KC, who uses a wheelchair, said it is no surprise the streets smell like urine.

“When you don’t have available bathrooms, you go where you need to go,” she said.

Berkeley officials have said the city is reluctant to provide those kinds of services because it does not currently have any sanctioned encampments. Martin said that was a shortsighted view: homelessness is not going away.

“People are fleeing an economic and environmental catastrophe,” he said. “This is ongoing. This is permanent.”

Kesarwani had called the town hall meeting to explore how to balance the needs of those without shelter and the needs of residents with homes. She started out showing slides that discussed the number of people who are homeless, the amount of money the city spends to help them, and some of the city’s initiatives.

But “trying to balance the concerns of the whole community,” is complex, she said.

One woman characterized Berkeley’s approach to dealing with the homeless issue as “schizophrenic.” On one hand, the city purports to want to help those living on the streets and provides 289 shelter beds and an array of services to assist them. But the city doesn’t want to take steps to actually make the circumstances of those living on the streets better, she said.

“The city is being hypocritical,” the woman told the crowd. “We care for these people but we aren’t going to offer support by providing garbage services or sewage.”

While Kesarwani wanted the town hall to be an opportunity for all aspects of the community to express their views, most of the speakers were homeless or were homeless advocates. About 20 people, part of the newly formed group Where Do We Go Berkeley?, had marched to the meeting from an encampment near the SeaBreeze Market on University Avenue. During the public comment portion of the meeting, they protested how the city and other government agencies have treated them. In the past few weeks, Caltrans has cleaned out encampments near there, forcing homeless people to move elsewhere.

Some people in the audience held up signs memorializing Fixie and Jupiter, two homeless men who were killed by a train in West Berkeley on Sept. 11. The men, Jupiter Marley, 31, and Jason Clary, 37, had both been evicted by Caltrans in the days preceding their deaths, according to their friends.

And we marched . . . Led by encampment residents, we marched on September 22nd to West Berkeley Townhall meeting on Homelessness in #Berkeley held by @RashiKesarwani
Many do not have electricity, sanitation, or service but we are CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES. #Wheredowegoberk pic.twitter.com/XK1hf2qZQC— WhereDoWeGoBerkeley (@WhereDoWeGoBerk) September 24, 2019

When Berkeley opens up its RV safe parking program, people will be allowed to stay for as long as three months. Other RVs will have to find somewhere other than city streets to park overnight. But enforcing that ban will not be a priority for police, Williams-Ridley said. Officers are more concerned about solving major crimes. So the city will mostly respond to complaints about RV overnight parking.

“We will not have a designated enforcement team driving around,” said Lt. Kevin Schofield

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...