Willard Park has seen an influx of people experiencing homelessness, Sept. 2, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen an increase in homeless campsites around town, Berkeley is stepping up efforts to tackle problematic behavior and firming up plans for its first sanctioned camp.

On Tuesday, the Berkeley Fire Department doused a fire at the city’s largest encampment, at University Avenue just west of Interstate 80. A wall of flames rose high into the sky but firefighters put out the blaze quickly and no one was hurt, officials said. It was only the latest of 80 fires reported in West Berkeley homeless camps in 2020, in stark contrast to the 18 encampment fires reported elsewhere in town.

On the other side of the city, tensions have been rising at Willard Park in the Elmwood neighborhood in recent weeks as its homeless population has risen from just one tent to a dozen, according to one city source familiar with the situation.

A spate of resulting problems and neighborhood complaints prompted City Councilmember Lori Droste and Mayor Jesse Arreguín to propose cordoning off parts of the park, at Hillegass Avenue and Derby Street, as a public health risk and increasing police enforcement to curtail camping overnight. The City Council is slated to vote on that proposal Sept. 15 as part of its consent calendar.

“Porta potties are currently located in the park … yet campers continue to relieve themselves in public areas. Last week a resident was assaulted,” according to the council item. “There have also been complaints of open fires/barbeques at the park. Neighbors to the park have reported increasing rat populations that are drawn to the area because of the ongoing trash accumulation.”

Droste told Berkeleyside on Thursday that she had received dozens of phone calls and about 40 emails in the past three weeks from neighbors — particularly parents with young children — who were worried about deteriorating conditions. She said she could not recall ever having gotten so many complaints about a single location in her district since she was elected in 2014.

Community members have pleaded with her to do something to address the situation before it gets worse, Droste said.

“People are understandably concerned,” she said. “I’m super concerned as well.”

Mayor: We need better places for people to live

On Thursday, as part of the regular schedule of weekly cleanups at campsites around the city, municipal workers visited Willard to help tidy up the area and remind campers what services are available to them, said Berkeley Police Officer Jessica Perry. Perry works in BPD’s Community Services Bureau (CSB), which spends a substantial amount of time fielding concerns related to homeless camps.

“We know most of these people in all the encampments throughout the city,” she said. “For the most part, they are very receptive.”

Relations between campers and city workers have been largely amicable this year, Perry said. The city does not remove any items without permission, she said. She did not recall any significant detentions or arrests. Various workers are available during cleanup operations to offer information about housing and medical help, among other services. Many of the campers leave their trash in piles so it’s easier for the city to pick up, Perry added.

But it also hasn’t gone unnoticed, amid some of the campers, that the city has been taking a relatively hands-off approach to enforcement. During one cleanup, Perry said, she watched a man look at her and laugh as he urinated outside right between two portable toilets, making it clear he knew no one would stop him.

The mayor said reports coming in from Willard about threats and even, in at least one case, physical violence need to be addressed. (A man doing tai chi was reportedly attacked in the park last week.) Amid COVID-19 the city has, for the most part, not enforced rules about some sidewalk regulations and camping in parks. But that appears to be shifting.

“Now that we’re in month six of the pandemic,” Arreguín said, “we need to intervene.”

There’s also been an increase in discarded needles at Willard. And, on Thursday, city staff came across one person’s tent that was full of bottles of urine. Other sites have been covered in feces.

“It’s gotten bad. There’s no question about it,” Mayor Arreguín said. “Kids and families should be able to use the park. We need to find better places for people to live.”

Sanctioned camp plans ramp up

University Avenue homeless camp, Sept. 2, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

The city has not settled on exactly where those better places might be, the mayor said. But plans are in motion, he said, to move people to a safer, sanctioned location and away from sites like Willard Park — in the middle of a residential neighborhood — and the freeway encampments at University Avenue and Gilman Street.

Arreguín said his goal is for that to happen within the next 30-45 days.

The camps around the freeway where, at times, more than 100 people have been living will then be cleaned up and fenced off, the mayor said.

“We take this issue very seriously,” Arreguín said. “We’re moving forward and taking quick action to provide safe places for people to shelter and to also address the growing health and safety risks we’re seeing on our streets.”

The mayor said Berkeley had hoped Caltrans — which owns the land along Interstate 80 — would do more to keep the areas around the freeway clean, but that it hadn’t happened to a large enough extent.

“At this point, I feel strongly that the city of Berkeley needs to step in and needs to address it,” he told Berkeleyside.

Multiple departments in the city are now working to find ways to deal with sprawling campsites near I-80 and debris that has been piling up.

“It’s not a good way for people to enter our city to see people living like that,” he said. “It’s not safe for motorists. It’s not safe for people walking to the marina. And it’s not safe for people living there.”

The City Council voted in January to allow a sanctioned homeless camp somewhere in the city. The camp would be managed by staff and have rules, but many of the details remained to be determined when council members approved the item.

City staff confirmed Friday in a brief statement that the new camp is coming: “We are working on a managed emergency outdoor location to help with the increase in homelessness we are seeing and to address the health and safety issues in a number of locations in Berkeley.”

Arreguín told Berkeleyside the city is “exploring several locations” for the sanctioned camp. Once that is decided, he said, city staff will get the operation up and running. Those plans will not have to come back to council for review, he said, because council already allocated the money for the camp and gave the city manager the authority to proceed.

For much of the year, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the city has focused its homeless outreach on providing services, information and critical supplies to individuals in need. It’s also gotten dozens of people into hotels, trailers and other types of shelter as those opportunities have arisen.

As of this week, at least 63 of the 69 hotel rooms in Berkeley set aside for people who had been living on the streets were occupied, staff said, as were 12 of the 18 RVs the city has set up as new homeless housing. That followed earlier efforts to help relocate dozens of Berkeley campers to Oakland hotel rooms that were made available through the state’s Project Roomkey initiative.

A softer approach

In the earliest days of the pandemic, cities around California found themselves scrambling to find ways to get people off the streets, concerned about the specter of coronavirus outbreaks tearing through homeless camps and decimating vulnerable populations. But public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control, later advised local jurisdictions to let people who were living outside continue to hunker down and shelter in place the same way housed residents were doing.

Paul Kealoha-Blake, a member of the city’s Homeless Commission and a volunteer with Consider the Homeless, a grassroots support network that distributes food, water, clothing and other essential supplies to unsheltered people around the city, said he thinks that approach has largely been working.

“I think that the softer enforcement has been very helpful,” he said Friday. “It’s important to remember that the people who are out here on the streets don’t have anywhere else to shelter than where they are.”

Kealoha-Blake has a long history in Berkeley doing outreach on his own to unsheltered people. Part of his work, he said, involves seeing how people are doing and feeling as part of his regular “welfare checks.” When he finds people who are having trouble coping, he connects them with staff from LifeLong Medical Care — which has a street medicine contract with the city — so they can get professional help.

Kealoha-Blake said he’s been happy to see Berkeley’s public works and parks staff doing more this year to help keep camps clean by picking up debris. He said he’s spent a lot of time talking with people in tents about the importance of cooperating with the city so those interactions go smoothly. When campers comply with city rules, he added, it gives police less reason to intervene.

“The cops don’t want to have to stop at a campsite,” he said. “They’d prefer not to have to do that.”

Kealoha-Blake said the city could still do more, financially and otherwise, to support community groups like Consider the Homeless. He said more should also be done to build trust and boost communication among the various efforts underway to help Berkeley’s unsheltered population.

“Trust is not something that can be built up in 24 hours,” he said. “It’s something we need to work on.”

Droste: We want to be compassionate

This year’s reduction in the enforcement of encampment-related civil code violations has seen a corresponding decrease in some aspects of law enforcement as the coronavirus pandemic has gone on.

Police around the city and state have been taking fewer people to jail and mental institutions in an effort to avoid moving them into potentially crowded living situations where COVID-19 can spread.

Most people who are arrested these days in Alameda County are released with a ticket and a somewhat distant court date. Except in the most serious cases, even those who are booked into jail can bail out for pennies. Some say this has led to an increasingly lawless situation, with more people outside who are struggling to manage mental health issues, substance abuse addiction and other challenges.

“We’re having a problem with people getting the resources they need,” said Perry, the officer from BPD’s Community Services Bureau. “There are fewer mental health professionals in the field on a daily basis.”

Perry said a number of the complaints that come into her office relate to the same individuals over and over. In the past, had they been arrested or taken for mental health treatment, it might have gotten them off the street for a few days — giving them and neighbors some respite. But now that option is much less available. It has put an increasing strain on some areas of the city, including Willard Park.

In an effort to address some of those issues, the upcoming proposal from Droste and the mayor’s office asks the city manager to increase nighttime enforcement and “enable the police to enforce park rules and ordinances.”

The item also asks the city to “Consider the presence of needles and feces a Public Health threat and enable the Public Health Department to cordon off areas of encampment for the purpose of clearing the areas of contamination and ensuring the areas are safe for public use.” One area that has been particularly impacted is the clubhouse in the southeast corner of the park, said people who are familiar with the situation.

The item also asks the city to post more signs in the area “to clarify rules regarding camping and park hours, as well as compliance with public health orders regarding COVID, included but not limited to facial coverings.”

Droste said her main goal is to address the unsafe conditions so families and children can use the park again, particularly as there continue to be restrictions on recreational opportunities inside. And the city must also identify an alternative location where campers can safely reside, she said.

“We want to be compassionate and help people who are homeless,” Droste said, “but we also need to balance the needs of our constituents who don’t want to have their kids step on a hypodermic needle.”

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 of the Year...