Berkeley's New Council Majority and the Shelter Game

Carol Denney
Wednesday December 14, 2016 - 05:07:00 PM

As you enter Berkeley's old City Hall where the council meetings are held you'll find people tucked away on cardboard in the alcoves of the entryway and curled up nearby under the bushes.

You'll meet even more people lounging in the well-lit first floor seating, especially in hard weather. There may be a serious - and intentional- lack of shelter beds in Berkeley, but there's no lack of empty, well-lighted spaces. The public buildings are full of them and if you add the commercial spaces yawning all over town there are tons. The LLCs which own them will wait decades if they must to replicate pre-2008 rental and lease rates no matter how many people pile up on the street or how many businesses go bust looking for reasonable commercial rates.

It isn't just about profit. It's about power. And right now the new majority on the Berkeley City Council looks like a bunch of clowns trying to find the right phrases to cloak their willingness to do almost the right thing and almost enough to imitate change without having to actually make any.

Except for Cheryl Davila. District 2's representative's soft-spoken, clear dissent on taking a Homeland Security grant requiring an $80,000 buy-in by the city for a less-offensive-looking bullet-proof van which even its promoters admit is just a facade change is simply common sense. But it looks heroic next to the backbone-free group next to her on the dais, which stumbled all over itself trying to say Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter at the same time without sounding like, well, politicians on the spot.

It was the same with the "emergency" homeless measures colliding together under Item 39; more committees! more study! But somehow very little clarity about the raids on homeless people's tents. 

District 5 Representative Sophie Hahn to her credit, pointed out the selective nature of the raids on the group known as First They Came for the Homeless, noting that city staff had created a "linkage" between some nearby vandalism and the group without bothering to have any evidence connecting them or making any criminal charges. This is notable because First They Came for the Homeless has been gratuitously "relocated" in the freezing pre-dawn darkness over and over again suffering injuries and losing property in a valiant effort to highlight that "offering services" in Berkeley has no connection to housing. 

Nobody really needs lockers for their property if they have a place to live. Nobody really needs a shower van if they have their own bathroom, even one down the hall. Nobody has to cart around town to the hot meal programs very often if they share a nice kitchen or can plug in a microwave. 

Berkeley's thirty-year unwillingness throughout the Hancock-Bates era to provide adequate shelter and low-income housing was calculated; if you're willing to accept "services", you can end up in a shelter in Richmond at which point you're technically a Richmond resident and don't qualify anymore for housing services in Berkeley. 

But the downside is you might be liable, as the town of Boise was, for citing people with no place to go for simply being there. This has prompted some towns to hold a few shelter spaces empty just to be able to prove in any court case that there was an empty bed that night for the "service-resistant" person who didn't manage to find it. 

We should worry when District 7 representative Kriss Worthington presses the point of wanting shelter beds available for people "whether they go there or not." He did this repeatedly last night at the December 13th Council Meeting without insisting on language protecting people from the middle-of-the-night raids for simply existing in a public space, an obvious and ominous omission. 

The city manager's office knows how to handle tent-dwellers who hang around in public parks; surround them at 5:00 am, block off the streets, prohibit sympathizers from assisting with belongings, drag them into custody if they don't move fast enough, and pile their belongings haphazardly in an open-air pile under a loose tarp in the rain. Oh, and then brag about how much money they spend on "homeless services." 

Tomorrow, Thursday, December 15th, the annotated notes from the Berkeley City Council meeting will be available for those who want to bulldog around in the detail of a policy so confusing new Mayor Jesse Arreguin actually asked City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, when she stated that she needed "explicit direction", for her suggestions. 

I could have missed it, but I only remember hearing Councilmember Davila asking for a friendly amendment that "the raids will stop" in a room full of people begging the council to stop hounding people hop scotching all over town trying to find a place to rest. In the meantime, those of us with an eye on city hall are clear about one thing; the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), the most powerful lobby in town, continues to appear to have the only voice that matters. 

"Getting people off the street" has a pretty friendly ring in most people's minds until you discover that it couples up nicely with the DBA's philosophy that public spaces should only be for the wealthy, the well-dressed, the shoppers, and a jail cell for everybody else. The current council, with a couple of notable exceptions, seemed poised to salute the status quo of middle-of-the-night raids on the poor unless we take the more secure road to political change by de-funding the million-dollar DBA and demanding that all new housing and all vacancies be used to address our very real housing emergency. 

# # #