With her soft brown hair that falls neatly to the sides of her unblemished 19-year-old face, Monique Desindes looks so wholesomely apple pie that it’s hard to believe she is homeless. Yet there she was on Tuesday evening, squatting outside Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue, half-eaten food and torn garbage bags strewn to her right. To her left sat Trek, an 18-year-old from Utah, wearing a spiked collar and sporting unkempt blond curls.
Monique and Trek both arrived on Telegraph about six months ago, part of a mini-migration of nomadic youth to Berkeley—especially the Telegraph area—that has swelled the number of homeless kids in town to roughly 200, according to social service workers.
Their presence has not gone unnoticed. Telegraph merchants and residents say more homeless kids equals lower quality of life: trash tossed on sidewalks, passerbys blocked from storefronts and harassed for spare change, increased prevalence of illegal drugs and excessive noise and rowdy behavior late into the night.
“It has never been this bad,” said Doris Willingham, president of the Telegraph Area Association (TAA) and a 28-year neighborhood resident. “They are a deterrent for visiting the avenue. Shoppers are weirded out by these people.”
Another neighbor who refused to give his name said that walking back to his home at Telegraph and Dwight Way has become like running a gauntlet as he is forced to weave in and out of bodies sprawled out on the street.
When he called police about 8 p.m. one recent evening to report that youths were shooting bottle rockets, he said officers didn’t respond until three hours later. “There is a general disregard for the community here,” he said.
To combat what some community members see as Telegraph’s slide into lawlessness, shop owners and residents are pressuring politicians and police for stepped-up enforcement. The TAA met twice with Mayor Bates last month and has urged police to beef up patrols and ticket trespassers.
Monique and Trek don’t seem like troublemakers. They speak barely above a whisper, their words coming drawn out and slowly. They said they hadn’t witnessed many fights or rowdiness, and that, except for some police harassment, they’ve felt welcomed.
“I like it here—the vendors, the shops. It’s way better than living with my dad,” said Monique, who makes hemp bracelets she sells from a box on the sidewalk. “We were in Fresno County and came here because we thought we might be able to get a job and there are way more shelters.”
Berkeley has long been a prime spot on the nomadic youth trail. Along with San Francisco, the city serves as a layover for youth heading from Seattle in summer towards the Southwest for winter. While some hang out on Shattuck Avenue, Telegraph draws the biggest crowds, the kids say, because it’s closer to homeless services and the steady supply of tourists offers better panhandling opportunities.
Berkeley’s homeless youth population has always been cyclical. The last boom was in 1999, a time merchants say was characterized by increased lawlessness. Homeless advocates and merchants acknowledge that the population has swelled again.
“We’ve practically doubled the number of people we’re giving service to,” said Ron Kunisawa, who works at the Chaplancy Homeless Youth Drop-in Center in the basement of the University Lutheran Church at Dwight and College Avenue.
He said the center has been servicing up to 60 youths a day this year, double last year’s numbers. He estimates that about 25 of those kids are just passing through, but the rest are sticking around.
Homeless advocate Natalie Leimkuhler also commented on the changing face of local homeless youth. “Sometimes, masses of kids are just passing through,” she said, acknowledging that in the past some of their ranks were filled with better-off kids from the other side of the Hills “slumming it” for the summer. “But now we’re seeing more of a hard-core homeless youth population and a lot see Berkeley as their home,” she said.
Leimkuhler works as a volunteer for Youth Emergency Assistant Hostels (YEAH), a non-profit that opened two winter shelters in Berkeley last year, one for women and the other co-ed. YEAH is part of a burgeoning non-profit effort to help the youth, but she said that despite city financial support, Berkeley still shortchanges the kids.
“In Seattle if you’re seventeen and gay, there’s a shelter for you. If you’re 19 with a baby, there’s a shelter for you.” Berkeley offers fewer services and is only now coordinating agencies to better help youth, she said.
In Berkeley, the drop-in center offers homeless kids a meal, a toothbrush, socks, soap and sanctuary from the streets three days a week. They partner with other agencies to provide free medical and dental care, job training, and transitional housing for eight youths at a center in West Berkeley.
Housing is available only to those who can keep a job and stay off drugs, and Kunisawa said most balk at the offer, not realizing that when they hit 25 the special services will vanish.
City funds for the drop-in center and the shelters weren’t harmed by budget cuts this year, but homeless advocates say the population surge has stretched resources.
Lack of funds led Rev. Doug Merritt, executive director of the drop-in center, to cancel plans to operate a booth on Telegraph for homeless kids to sell their crafts, though he said a grant from the Berkeley Community Fund will pay for an evening program at the church this winter that he hopes will lure kids off the streets.
A money shortage last year closed the women’s shelter after ten weeks and the co-ed shelter after five. The city contributes $15,000 to the project Leimkuhler said, but $60,000 is needed to operate both shelters for the entire winter.
Separate shelters for youth are essential to protect them from the regular homeless population, Kunisawa said. “Kids are very scared of those guys. In a shelter, they’re like prey.”
Several street kids acknowledged tension between homeless groups.
Robert Publik, a relatively clean-cut panhandler in his early 20’s, said that the street youth—who call themselves “gutter punks”—are banding together to push out crack users who had been hassling them to buy their drugs.
“The crackheads are trying to roll us,” he said. “There comes a time when gutter punks and hippie kids don’t tolerate it anymore.”
Publik said he’s noticed more crack users on Telegraph recently and that many have come from outside Berkeley because they hear Berkeley crack is more potent.
Berkeley Police reports don’t support Publik’s claim. Department spokesperson Mary Kusmiss refused to discount that harder drugs might be gaining a foothold on Telegraph, but said recent drug bust operations have not found crack- or cocaine dealing in the area.
Residents associate any increase in drugs with the surge in youths on the streets.
Willingham insists that homeless youth have exacerbated the economic slowdown on Telegraph by scaring off some customers. Andy Ross of Cody’s Books wouldn’t go that far, but he wondered if falling evening sales might be related to the youths who squat outside his shop.
Merchants also blame the police, who they say have cut back patrols and refuse to crack down on anti-social behavior.
An eight-officer joint city and UC Berkeley bike patrol founded in 1969 was slashed in December 2001 due to staffing shortages. Both forces suffered losses from early retirements and the need to reassign officers to more pressing beats. BPD now supplies two bike officers to complement 12 patrol officers on Telegraph. UC has one officer assigned, but she is injured and not expected back until next month.
Neither force expects to supplement the three-officer bike patrol anytime soon.
TAA officials say the decline of the bike control has led to the influx of nomadic youth and have asked the BPD to rigorously enforce the city’s trespassing ordinance and ticket youth who sleep on private property around Telegraph.
The latest arrest figures show police have upped enforcement. Of the 466 arrests made on Telegraph this year, 87 were made in the past two weeks. Thirty-four of those arrests were for trespassing, according to BPD figures.
Homeless people arrested for trespassing go to Santa Rita jail—where most spend a night and are then released for time served—but homeless advocates worry for the youth’s safety. Earlier this year, Kevin Freeman, a Telegraph Area regular, was murdered at Santa Rita by his cellmate after he was arrested on a charge of public drunkenness.
Leimkuhler said police often hassle homeless youth, rousting them awake throughout the night. “Kids are regularly cycled out to Santa Rita,” she said. “Some go to jail pretty regularly.”
Soda D. Spanger, 36, with his Mohawk haircut and missing tooth, seemed like the kind of guy merchants are complaining about, but he says after three years on Telegraph he hasn’t been arrested once. He refers to beat officers by their nicknames and said he wasn’t rousted as long as he followed their orders and kept his area clean. Still, as he lay sprawled out in front of La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant taking bites from a can of cat food, he didn’t give pedestrians much space.
“People want to see punk rockers here,” he said. “They love us.”
About a minute later he yelled at a middle age woman passing by: “Give me all your money or I’ll blow your brains out.”
The woman shot him a stare of disgust and kept walking past.
“Guess she didn’t think that was funny,” he said.