Public Comment

Mayor Arreguin's First 29 Days - Still Sweeping the Homeless, or Honey, This Ain't Camping

Carol Denney
Saturday December 31, 2016 - 05:25:00 PM

Excerpt from Mayor Jesse Arreguin's "First 29 Days" progress report with emphasis and underlining added:

..."Regarding the “First They Came for the Homeless” Encampment

I have received many emails from neighbors throughout Berkeley regarding the ongoing protest tent encampment which has moved throughout Berkeley. These encampments have not been sanctioned by the City and staff have taken enforcement action based on complaints from residents. Camping on public property, including medians, is illegal under the Berkeley Municipal Code. City staff can take complaint driven enforcement action regarding any violations of the Municipal Code. Unlike other cities, Berkeley’s Charter does not give the Mayor executive authority to hire or direct staff. As Mayor, my role is to shape city policy and work with the City Manager to implement city policies and initiatives. I do not alone have the unilateral power to direct staff to enforce, or not enforce, violations of the Berkeley Municipal Code..."

So, is the Mayor of Berkeley just a helpless pawn in a larger political game played by a city staff hoping to thwart his objectives and court losing their jobs? Are they a bunch of evil people hoping to snatch blankets from the poor because it's just such great sport on a cold winter night?

Berkeley's new Mayor just issued a self-congratulatory "progress report" claiming that the City Manager is impervious to his direction. It's true that Berkeley has a strong city manager form of government. but there are lots of things Arreguin can do both as mayor and as a citizen, especially under the emergency housing crisis declaration which the city council (under Mayor Tom Bates) passed last January.

The City Council under Mayor Arreguin, at its first meeting Dec. 12, 2016, had language stopping the homeless sweeps removed from a lengthy proposal doubling shelter space, among other things. Apparently somebody realized they only had four votes since District 7 Councilmember Kriss Worthington inexplicably pulled his vote away. They wanted to look unified at their first meeting, and the proposal still had some good stuff. Calling Worthington to express dismay (981-7170) is a good idea, but building wider support to stop the homeless raids and accept that we need immediate housing and several campgrounds is key, since people have concerns about people setting up tents all over the city anywhere they like, which is pretty much the state of things anyway. And which is legal, absent alternatives, under many readings of the law. This is not camping, as Mayor Arreguin's statement claims. It is survival.

The answer is having both immediate emergency housing within Berkeley city limits as well as sanctioned camping areas with port-a-potties, laundry facilities, garbage collection, etc., without which complaints are almost inevitable. The homeless people I know are not only better organized than most of the people I know with housing, they do a better job of taking care of indigent mentally ill on the streets than the city's current answer; the police, the court system and its pointless, expensive revolving door. 

They are not camping, as brand-new Mayor Jesse Arreguin claims in his "29 Days" statement. We've all been camping, or many of us have. Try to imagine camping with no water source or bathroom nearby. Try to imagine having to assume that everything with you, all your survival gear, will be regularly swept into a trash truck, including your identification cards, your cell phone if you have one, your electronic equipment let alone your warm clothing, to end up in a huge dumpster in the rain you're free to paw through after a lengthy wait at the police station, assuming you can afford to take that risk considering the fines and bench warrants you may have unknowingly collected after the last raid.

The local non-profits and religious groups can play a role here by making statements and voting officially to stop the homeless raids, typically a middle-of-the-night nightmare costing $15,000 - to $30,000 per event (at least twelve so far for First They Came For the Homeless, only one of about eighteen tent groups in Berkeley of about an estimated 1000 people). Simply voting to cease the raids would pressure Arreguin's new task force, formed at the Dec. 12th, 2016, council meeting, to identify some sanctioned spaces for people to harbor and regroup without the fear of losing everything they own. Mayor Arreguin has sounded vaguely supportive in the past, but we need more voices to stand strongly against the criminalization of poverty.

It's a critical time right now, in my opinion, because most people will be delighted to hear they've doubled the shelter space and "improved" ways to retrieve your belongings after they've been stolen. But I'm hoping people will stand firm with stopping the raids in the first place. Leaving a call expressing concern with the new Mayor(Mayor Jesse Arreguin, (510) 981-7140) is a good start. 

But let's not forget that no less than former Mayor Tom Bates, at the persuasive insistence of a group of people which included former Human Welfare & Community Action Commissioner Dan McMullan, a strong advocate for civil rights and director of the Disabled People Outside project, spent at least a portion of the night outside in the park by City Hall to experience, at least in part, what homeless people experience, albeit under the bemused eye of local press. 

Let us not begin the year 2017, a year which guarantees extreme challenges for our city, expecting even less from Mayor Arreguin. We need to vacate entirely the discriminatory laws on our books aimed at the poor, and dismantle the teams routinely rousting and robbing them, including the Downtown Berkeley Association's chilling "Hospitality" green-shirted Gestapo, caught on video beating up homeless people not long ago. Especially after thirty years under the Hancock-Bates regimes' shell game replacing low-income and SRO (single-room occupancy) housing with high-end, unaffordable units, we need to make sure the current council majority is pressured to offer housing, not "services", and keep their promises to stop the raids.