New: Stop Shifting the Burden of Berkeley's Policy Failures Onto Homeless People: An Open Letter to the Berkeley City Council (Public Comment)

Elisa Cooper
Monday November 16, 2015 - 01:20:00 PM

I'm writing to express my shock that Council Member Maio's laws to criminalize the homeless not only suddenly resurfaced on the 11/17 Council meeting agenda, but Council Members Bates, Capitelli, and Droste have rushed to co-sponsor these alarmist, counter-productive laws. 

Though the citizens of Berkeley rejected similar laws when tested by vote several times and dozens held out until 1am to reiterate that opinion the last time proposals to criminalize the homeless were slipped into the agenda, Council members seem to be determined to go out of their way to impose their knee-jerk urge to sweep homeless people under some rug. Ostensibly, Criminalization of the Homeless 5.0 is a response to a deluge of letters that Council Members received behind the scenes. However, it seems more likely that these letters were generated by an organized campaign from a few obsessed reactionaries. 

The crusader-in-chief against homeless people is John Caner, whose Big Development clients directly benefit from removing homeless people from the area around their properties (or, rather, pushing them into other districts). When Caner was up for re-appointment, numerous citizens testified at that City Council meeting that we objected to our tax money going to fund Caner's lobbying efforts, which don't reflect the opinions of the average taxpayer: we made a collective statement that Caner doesn't represent us. Yet Caner has continued to lobby for the benefits of real estate investors with impunity. It did not go unnoticed that Caner has recently been prevailing upon his mailing list to write Council Members to "improve conditions on our community sidewalks". 

Another appallingly anti-democratic campaign was recently organized on the online social network NextDoor, ring-led by another real estate professional. This effort is particularly sleazy because homeless people can't join NextDoor: they don't have a verifiable street address. Therefore, NextDoor permits homeless profiling by a few highly prejudiced people who are drawn to places where they can promote such views unopposed and construct an echo chamber that perpetuates the illusion of social consent. A number of people, including myself, have complained about the inaccurate and unchallenged homeless-bashing on NextDoor. I would bet this person whipped up the whole "public outcry" regarding Ohlone Park. 

The highly stereotyped images of homeless people propagated by hate-mongers like Caner and the NextDoor writer harm the whole spectrum of people who fall into homelessness: women and children fleeing abuse, working people who can't afford shelter on the pittance of minimum wage, disabled people who have been caught for years in SSI and VA backlogs or who can't afford shelter on their meager fixed incomes, panhandlers who need to beg to hang on to shelter and need cash for non-food necessities, people who could not access services because of a criminal record...etc. Regional homeless counts show the mentally ill and the drug-using "traveler" only constitute a fraction of the chronically homeless. In seeking to persuade society to withdraw compassion from a dehumanized caricature of homeless people, the Caners and Garcias of the world get away with depriving everyone - who might at any time find themselves driven into homelessness - of desperately needed aid. 

As has been pointed out to City Council in the past, most of the "behaviors" they claim to be seeking to curb are already illegal: the only reason for reiterating these laws is to advertise City Counsel's intent to enforce such laws, i.e. to proclaim allegiance to criminalization. Furthermore, in this latest attempt at criminalization, City Council craftily transfers enforcement powers to the arbitrary judgment of a "Traffic Engineer", who would not be trained in homeless issues and would not be checked by democratic processes. Beyond the anti-democratic aspects of putting a Traffic Engineer in charge of enforcing already legally-questionable laws against the homeless, the liability risk boggles the mind. Both HUD and the Federal Department of Justice have been sending strong signals that they intend to hold City's accountable for mistreating the homeless: the Department of Justice considers it a human right for people to be able to sleep in public spaces when no shelter is available, and HUD plans to make cities compete for funding on the basis of whether they've made adequate efforts to reduce homelessness.

Moreover, sandwiching punitive laws between bribes of shelter and services does not magically make them good laws. I doubt I'm the only person who feels demoralized whenever such overt political manipulations are played out on the City Council dais. Please stop insulting the intelligence of the citizens of Berkeley. 

The most shameful aspect of City Council's repeated turns to criminalization is that they are punishing the homeless for multiple failures of City policy. 

1) The homeless are being behaviorally profiled for the City's past failure to provide public bathrooms. I wondered whether it's ever occurred to anyone on City Council that homeless people are not exempt from health catastrophes that may strike any of us. For instance, what is a homeless person to do if they suffer from a medical condition that drives them to seek a bathroom throughout the night? I can tell you from first-hand experience that the medical system is excruciatingly slow for Medi-Cal patients, and they neglect matters of social embarrassment, even if common sense would tell you that the situation would prevent someone from holding down a job or otherwise climbing out of poverty. Homeless people are already being subject to stressful, sleep-depriving conditions that exacerbate physical and mental illnesses, and even people with a mailing address have trouble communicating with medical providers regularly. It seems more reasonable and humane to make sure clean and safe bathroom facilities are available. However, I've heard that bathrooms aren't being established in appropriate central areas because they would "attract nuisances". 

2) The City does not provide enough shelters for homeless people during a universally acknowledged housing crisis. Therefore, efforts to make homeless people "uncomfortable" so they move on just results to pushing them around different districts. 

3) The City has failed to provide adequate subsidized public transportation. Therefore, the time and energy of homeless people are drained as they crisscross town trying to get from one service to another. Should they do without a shower, laundry, food, or shelter today? Should they miss the appointment with a lawyer or a community service agency? Where will the vaunted "storage" be located? Legally mandated storage of needed possessions could easily turn into inflicting more run-around and bureaucracy. 

4) The City is dodging responsibility for the consequences of preferring low wage businesses (restaurants and "local" retail) while letting market rate price-gouging landlords run amok. Why not take some radical action such as a rent freeze or market rate construction moratoriums in anticipation that this move will provoke legal challenges? This would enable the City to seek new rulings to overturn Costa Hawkins and reform Prop 13. 

5) The City is doing nothing about 4 known causes of the housing crisis:  

  • UC Berkeley expanding student recruitment,
  • Silicon Valley's failure to house its own - pushing the problem of housing the tech workforce into San Francisco and across the bay,
  • AirBNB soaking up room-based units, and
  • rampant speculation from outside investors, and groups of investors, who seek to exploit our housing pressures for their financial gain.
Why isn't UC Berkeley paying impact and community benefit fees for refusing to provide adequate housing for their students? Why aren't mega-corporations paying regional impact and community benefit fees? Why is AirBNB being allowed to operate in a college town that has exceptional need for room-based housing? Why aren't we building more youth hostels? Why doesn't the City focus policy on curbing speculation? Why is the City being led by the nose by outsiders who profiteer off of basic human needs? 

I would like to spend the remainder of this letter underscoring the hypocrisy of City Council's current attitude toward restoring "aesthetics" to public places. As a person who holds an advanced degree in European History, I've spent a great deal of time appreciating how the cultural legacy of Berkeley distinguishes the city and makes it a choice place to live. I believe in the importance of local "character" as the product of a community's multi-generational cultural work. I believe in historical preservation as a celebration of our collective legacy. I don't believe that aesthetic appreciation is contrary to the development of low income housing. Indeed, low income housing can be designed in such a way to contribute to a neighborhood's or a City's aesthetic luster while confirming Berkeley's world-renowned claim to the social vanguard. 

While City Council is busy punishing people for suffering from extreme poverty, they have become blind to the real danger to Berkeley's beauty and character. Council Member Lori Droste has appointed multiple San Francisco BARF members to the Housing Advisory Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board. SF BARF has declared "character" and "preservation" as their chief enemies. Furthermore, SF BARF betrays local communities as they advocate for regional authority to take over City development. 

SF BARF is about ideology: abstract sustainability goals and crass supply-and-demand economics. They show no sensitivity to or willingness to accommodate local conditions. Berkeley is notoriously "quirky" - and the presence of the University and the existence of strong rent control mean that every policy decision requires a hyper-local eye. Once our historic buildings are destroyed, we will not be able to get them back. On the other hand, a homeless person that the City finds to be an "eyesore" can always be helped off the street. 

More worrying, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has been pushing to remove anti-displacement criteria from Plan Bay Area. Think about that for a minute. In Berkeley that's not only about allowing the forces of speculation to dislodge poor people from "wasteful" houses -- it's about clearing the way for demolishing historic structures and replacing them with more "efficient" stacks of density. Do we really need to destroy the individualistic "character" of this college town to provide enormous concrete filing-cabinets to contain Silicon Valley's junior employee overflow? Before demolishing Berkeley to give well-connected architects and city planners plum jobs and line the pockets of International investors, shouldn't we test whether we can mitigate the housing crisis through less destructive measures - such as freeing student-ready rooms from AirBNB? 

Again, homelessness can be reversed, the destruction of Berkeley's physical "character" cannot. We don't need regional authority to make sure Berkeley citizens do the right thing. From what I've seen, the hyper-local actions of the good Berkeley community have been advocating for low income housing, crying out to address disparate impacts of housing policy, and fighting discrimination - but these local efforts are being ignored by politicians who only seek "solutions" that jive with what benefits the California Real Estate Industry and super-rich developers. Don't let campaign greed become the Regionalista's excuse to deprive the City of power to control its own development and zoning. 

To create Berkeley as that beautiful flower-basket city of City Council fantasies, we need to pursue the idea of housing as a human right. We need to move beyond dwelling on a property's highest potential and foster Berkeley as a city where human beings can aspire to their highest potential - supported by housing stability, lifelong education, a culture of compassion and public spirit. 

Most of all, the City needs to pay its own penance for our failure to pursue proactive housing policy instead of shifting the burden of bad policy onto the most weak and vulnerable citizens. Homeless people are an easy target since sentiment can be whipped up against them behind closed doors in the comfy houses of the more fortunate. City Council, however, should be representing all the citizens of Berkeley - even the ones who don't get to have a roof over their heads.