New: The Pathways Project won't work for Berkeley homeless (Public Comment)

Thomas Lord
Saturday April 01, 2017 - 02:55:00 PM

On Tuesday, April 4th, the Berkeley City Council will be voting on a controversial proposal that will further criminalize the homeless. The plan, called "The Pathways Project", promises to intensify enforcement of anti-homeless laws. At the heart of the Pathways project is a simple proposition: step up law enforcement against homeless people without providing the vast majority of them any alternatives to breaking the law. 

Pathways only offers three positive proposals: to have mental health professionals participate in enforcement activities; to provide a small navigation-center style facility, the STAIRS facility, into which a few homeless people may be diverted as an alternative to enforcement; and to dedicate significant money (staff time) both to the STAIRS facility, and to an open-ended research project to develop "1,000 person plan" and a vaguely described tiny homes facility for a small number of homeless people. 

Anyone, homeless or housed, should respect established standards of community behavior. But often, people spreading out bedding and other possessions on sidewalks do so because there are no secure places to store their belongings and it’s nearly impossible to find housing. These “behavior” issues are a symptom of our failure to provide housing or adequate services to help people on our streets. So that raises the question, “What is the solution?” More laws to criminalize behavior? Or using this moment as an opportunity to focus on policies and practices that empower homeless people to exist, even in Berkeley, without so many day to day conflicts with the public peace and morals? 

Focusing on enforcement is a proven failure and decorating enforcement with a quixotic, utopian ambition to "end homelessness" is no improvement. Numerous studies, including a recent one by UC Berkeley School of Law professors and students, show that enforcement of quality-of-life laws such as bans on sitting and lying don’t work. People will cycle in and out of the criminal justice system and back onto our streets. 

Most of the words above were written by Jesse Arreguin, in his op-ed "Services not citations needed to address homelessness" -- dated March 17, 2015. I updated the Mayor's op-ed, slightly, to reflect the latest anti-homeless initiative to come before council: Mayor Arreguin's own Pathways project. What a difference two years makes. 

Today, it is impossible to survive in Berkeley as a literally homeless person without breaking the law. It is also dangerous. 

As a form of self-help, some homeless people attempt to reduce the danger to themselves by staying in close proximity to one another -- so called "homeless encampments" are an example. This form of survival runs afoul of more laws than most. The Pathways proposal will concentrate enforcement on the safer form of homeless survival -- staying in groups -- and thereby encourage less safe forms. 

Nothing in the Pathways proposal will make it legally possible to survive in Berkeley as a homeless person. Nor does the plan create many alternatives to homelessness -- in spite of spending "considerable" money, some of which has not even been found in the budget. 

Mayor Arreguin should honor his own words and withdraw the Pathways proposal. 

He should instead, turn his immediate attention to making it legally possible to survive that which no policy can yet prevent: literal homelessness.