Practical Solutions to Problems of Homelessness: An open letter to neighbors of Ohlone Park

Alejandro Soto-Vigil
Monday November 16, 2015 - 01:45:00 PM

Homelessness is a chronic problem in Berkeley and beyond. Whether it's our mentally ill, senior citizens, youth, veterans, or families. This problem affects too many people. I've seen our Ohlone neighbors show a great deal of compassion and sympathy for the plight of other human beings. 

Recently, I've seen several emails sent by a few council members indicating that there are only two items addressing homelessness on the November 17th Council agenda. The reality is that there are three. I write this because sometimes politics and personal attacks need to be pushed aside to address long standing community issues, like homelessness.  

Over the last two years, the Homeless Task Force, convened by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, examined various aspects of homelessness and sought to find short and long term solutions. Item #24 City Manager Referral: Implementation of Tier One Recommendations from the Homeless Task Force is the Council's opportunity to move the well thought out short term solutions forward. In short, Item #24 seeks to:  

  • Expand Outreach Teams
  • Expand Mobile Crisis
  • Crisis Intervention Training
  • Public Restrooms
  • Storage Space
  • Winter Warming Centers
Item #27 Protecting our Parks from Unsafe, Unsanitary Conditions is an attempt to deal with our Parks and Ohlone specifically. As we support this item, we should support making amendments based on what neighbors expressed at the meeting.  

First, that the restrooms be permanent rather than the installation of more porta potties - we deserve better. Second, that police vehicle should not drive on our parks. We want cops on bikes to troubleshoot not intimidate. Police vehicles also invites a physically threat to people in the park. This could lead to conflict with mentally unstable people and it destroys our grass and landscapes. :-( 

Some other suggestions from the Ohlone meeting:  

  • Install more signage in key areas. Park hours, no smoking, park rules.
  • Install new trashcans AND recycling bins. We need many more trashcans, preferably rat proof and with lids. They need to be emptied regularly. Currently there are no places to recycle in the park.
  • Install biohazard needle bins in portable toilet areas. Neighbors have seen needles.
  • Fix the side walks. For seniors walking in the park it’s dangerous.
  • Install trash bag rolls. Homeless individuals and neighbors are willing to help clean up.
  • Make sure that 311 operator has homeless outreach number at their fingerprints.
  • Cutting the vegetation so that you can see all the way across the park.
  • Rethink rules about pets in shelters.
  • Improve cleanliness and accessibility of shelters.
  • More staff for outreach. Two staffers is not enough.
  • Coordinate with other cities.
  • Fenced encampment at the marina during the night.
  • Extend the community gardens along the fence.
  • All these new developments – find a way to increase affordable units. We need more affordable units in Berkeley.
Item #28 Improve Conditions on Our Community Sidewalks; Amending Berkeley Municipal Code Chapters 13.36 and 14.48 doesn't make much logical sense. The irony of the proposal is while we are dealing with significant problems in Ohlone Park and other parks, this proposal will push homeless people to our parks. The ordinances do not apply in city parks only to commercial sidewalks. This proposal just shifts people from place to place without solving the underlying causes, and will NOT reduce street homelessness. 

Point 1: No human wants to defecate or urinate in public. If the City provided permanent public restrooms 24/7 and people continued to defecate and urinate in public then a ordinance prohibiting would make sense.  

Point 2: When you see a homeless person with a cart, more likely than not, the cart contains all of their personal belongings. To mandate someone with a cart to move hour to hour and location to location, this proposed law is essentially a local trail of tears on homeless people. Guess where folks with carts in the commercial districts will go - to our Parks. 

Point 3: To pass an ordinance restricting homeless people from taking up two square feet with personal belongings doesn't make sense. We should get the storage units first, and then examine how well the program works before making legal restrictions. Will we need larger storage units? How about more units altogether? Where are the storage units going to be housed? What hours will they be accessible? Doing a pilot program makes sense.  

I understand that the council majority is seeking to address homelessness. However, without thoughtful planning and knowing the needs of homeless people they continue to move proposals forward that lack practicality.  

We all agree that working to curtail homelessness and problematic behavior is a top priority. In adopting policy, it is important to look at it from multiple angles. I look forward to seeing all of our Ohlone neighbors on Tuesday night.