William Barclay Caldeira, 1968-2019
The Unnatural Circumstances of a Natural Death

Carol Denney
Friday May 31, 2019 - 01:47:00 PM

The third migrant child to die in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody in the last six months died last week sounding a national note of alarm. Around the same time Consider the Homeless Director Barbara Brust's informal count of homeless deaths in the past year on Berkeley's streets reached at least thirteen, one for every million dollars spent on the recent BART plaza renovation, and her grassroots outreach group held a candlelit memorial in their name May 14th on City Hall's steps. Her group took care to share their names, tell their stories, and dignify their lives.

That count just reached at least fifteen with addition of two more deaths, including that of William Barclay Caldeira, former commissioner on the Commission on Homelessness, who died May 20th, according to initial coroner's office statements, of natural causes in an ambulance on the way to a hospital. Friends including his appointer Councilmember Cheryl Davila held a memorial for him Friday, May 24th near City Hall to mourn his loss. 

Known to his friends as "300", Caldeira was an independent thinker and a steadfast council watcher who knew both the players and the game. Sitting with him at a council or commission meeting was often a riotous narration of a back story threaded with invention, comedy and invective. District 4 Councilmember Kate Harrison offered this quotation regarding 300's death; 

"William Barclay (affectionately known as 300) spoke up not just for himself but for others who were left behind by our cruel, money-centered society. His comments at Council meetings often made me sit up and think about problems in a different way. Not to mention he always bothered to learn everyone’s middle name, sometimes to the amusement and sometimes the embarrassment of the person he was addressing! We failed him and he will be missed. Our city is poorer without him." 

But Harrison, along with the rest of the city council present at the May 28th council meeting, voted to "take no action" to avoid supporting Councilmember Cheryl Davila's resolution for a moratorium on the use of the "three by three" ordinance[1] requiring homeless people to have no more than a small 3'x3' square footprint of belongings on a sidewalk. Davila pleaded with her fellow councilmembers to recognize the untenable burden the ordinance places on vulnerable people, often too disabled or ill to manage constantly having to move belongings to avoid getting tickets. "We have 58 storage units," she reminded the council, adding the city currently has just under 200 shelter beds, not enough for the approximately 1,000 people sleeping on Berkeley's streets on any given night. The council gave itself the usual pat on the back for the "millions and millions" it spends on "services" and sat on its hands. 

300 had recently lost his battle for housing, and it left him in despair. Davila and I were among the many people who checked in with him several times a week before his death bringing him food or just sitting with him awhile listening to the sound of an intelligent, articulate man whose level of stamina for Berkeley's hypocrisy was all but gone. 

Berkeley has lost at least 15 unhoused people on its streets to death in the past year under Mayor Jesse Arreguin and the current city council's watch, an administration now brimming with Measure O and P funding. And with the shining exception of Councilmember Cheryl Davila, they refused the clearest, most obvious opportunity to do something more practical than continue to harass and criminalize the poor on the street. They whispered together unselfconsciously through Councilmember Davila's cogent remarks on the need for immediate, practical help for those dying slowly in plain sight on Berkeley streets. Consider the Homeless Director Barbara Brust's critical remarks from the floor during the council's congratulatory back-slapping session about how much they do and how much they spend! earned her a threat from the mayor to have her removed from the council chambers. 

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani came the closest to echoing Councilmember Cheryl Davila's elegant reduction of Berkeley's status quo to simple math: 1,000 homeless people on the street minus less than 200 shelter beds equals death. Kesarwani noted the 43% increase in homelessness countywide and stated that "the 1,000 person plan" others were citing as "turning the ship around" (Councilmember Sophie Hahn) was in fact "not enough."  

Unless, of course, death is just part of the plan. They're natural deaths, after all. As Berkeley has systematically converted older, low-income, rent-controlled housing to sparkling new unregulated high-end housing, the habitat for low-income people is almost completely gone. What little margin this college town used to use to help harbor people on the margins is now soaking up short-term rental money. This is the new face of compassion, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguin, and most of the Berkeley City Council gives it a bold, bald thumbs-up. 

300's last few weeks struck me as having everything in common with the burrowing owls trying gamely to survive their threatened status at the inland edge of Cesar Chavez Park among off-leash dogs, drones, and people clueless about habitat. It's not that people can't hang by their fingernails, as 300 had done for years. It's just that a growing ratio of them, at some point, can only hold on for so long. Our city's willingness to house only the wealthy has racial and cultural implications, to be sure. But for 300, unlike for all but one of the Berkeley City Council on May 28th, 2019, it seemed personal. 

300 was a graduate of Berkeley High. He was more able than most to express his thoughts, to write, to articulate his ideas. He had no difficulty recognizing the inadequacies and the indignities which seem larded into every inch of the city's current "services" presumed to be a path out of homelessness. With all due respect to the difficult job of the city staff lined up to explain how many 3x3 citations (14) have so far been issued to how many people (12) since the ordinance's enactment on April 22, 2019, William Barclay Caldeira's voice is the voice the mayor should have paid more attention to. His life and death, in this city ranked by Bloomberg News in 2014 as among the top ten in the nation in income disparity, is proof to those with common sense that our city, for all its sense of its own generosity, is doing something terribly and utterly wrong.  

[1] Ordinance 7632N.S. (BMC 14.48.160 and 14.48.170)"Miscellaneous Use of Streets and Sidewalks/Shared Sidewalk Policy"