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Oakland's Homeless Program is better than Berkeley's

Shane Brodie
Friday January 06, 2017 - 03:34:00 PM

Oakland is showing real leadership among Bay Area cities by starting a pilot program which extends garbage collection to homeless camps. Cities like SF and Berkeley are purposefully using their neglect of basic sanitation to force our opinion about health hazards at these camps. Oakland's pilot program is a good start to working with these camps in a compassionate and realistic way, instead of just razing them and disposing of camping gear. 

If we are not going to provide appropriate housing and healthcare services for people, then we need to help them to survive where they are at and in the ways that they can. We need to help people to camp, if we do not provide alternatives that address their needs. 

A viable plan for appropriate housing might be to prioritize housing people first before other problems are solved. We need to create uncrowded temporary housing conditions, instead of the usual stacks of multiple bunkbeds shoved into a small room and locked behind a fence, such as at the men's shelter in downtown Berkeley. We need shelters to be primarily staffed by trained social workers who would then actively transition people into more stable housing and provide one-on-one mental health and addiction services. Currently, shelter workers actively look for minor infractions and deviations in behavior, which creates a hostile and punitive environment that people are unable to comply with and want to avoid. 

Without substantial wrap-around support services, the most vulnerable people are often banned from the shelters and are then unable to access any help and are forced to camp out. I consider it a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if municipalities harass and criminalize the behavior of disabled people that they've excluded from temporary housing, because of unmet healthcare needs or a lack of disability accommodation. 

This exclusion also leads to false reporting (i.e. lies by omission) by municipalities about the number of available beds. The cities look like they have plenty of services available, while at the same time they are restricting availability only to those who can handle very stringent jail-like conditions and rules.

We can do better. Let's follow Oakland's lead and extend city services to all city residents and then work on longer-term plans for reforming conditions at our temporary shelters to meet the real needs of homeless Berkeley residents.