Berkeley no longer haven for homeless
Even this college town, traditionally the defender of the downtrodden, protector of the left and arbiter of political correctness, has had enough -- enough of the homeless.
After months of hand-wringing, the Berkeley City Council this week passed a law to hire monitors to patrol city streets and parks and report inappropriate behavior by the homeless and others to police and social service agencies.
The plan makes it easier for police to enforce a law against camping in public places. It bans lying down on commercial streets during the day and bars smoking on sidewalks on main commercial corridors.
It was a heart-wrenching decision for leaders of a city that was home to the Free Speech Movement, the hippies and an assortment of other anti-establishment causes.
“A lot of the council had a hard time with it,” said Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a city spokeswoman. “It is nothing that anyone really wants to do.”
It was Berkeley’s reputation for tolerance and generous social services that helped attract so many homeless.
One study estimated that 40% of Alameda County’s chronically homeless reside in Berkeley even though the city represents only 7% of the county’s population.
“Berkeley is an expensive place to live, and our streets are dirty,” Clunies-Ross said. “That’s because of how they are used.”
In recent years the city’s openness to the unorthodox has given way to discomfort over aggressive panhandling and public urination and defecation, merchants said.
Frustrated by homeless encampments, Berkeley residents and merchants recently helped reject a plan to build a public plaza near what is known as the Gourmet Ghetto in North Berkeley, home of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant. Residents and merchants feared that the homeless would just take over, Clunies-Ross said.
Geir Fredriksen, manager of a furniture design store on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley’s downtown commercial area, said he has had to usher out homeless people who wander in hoping to lounge on the plush furniture for sale.
“Instead of being so liberal and progressive here, as everyone wants to be in Berkeley, they have to address the problem,” Fredriksen said. “I don’t think they are doing enough, but at least it’s a big issue now.”
Panhandlers and men with shopping carts dotted Shattuck Avenue on Wednesday, and some of those who were not disoriented were familiar with the city’s plan.
“You either go into a shelter or go into jail or you get out of town,” complained Robert Ball, 60, who sat in the sun near his loaded cart. “That’s what they want to do -- push us out of town and make it someone else’s problem.”
Not so, city officials said. In fact, they bristle at the description of the plan as a “crackdown” on the homeless. They have labeled it “Public Commons for Everyone.”
Mayor Tom Bates said the idea was not to rout the homeless, but to target bad behavior by anyone, including rowdy students, addicts and the mentally ill.
Shaping the plan that way was “better politically for us because we don’t want to go after just homeless people,” Bates said.
Still, the effort was not politically palatable to all of the city’s elected officials. The parts of the plan that were punitive passed on a split vote.
Councilwoman Dona Spring voted against the entire scheme. She complained that it would increase “the police powers” and “make it harder for individuals to lie on the sidewalk.” Calling the action “amoral,” she said, “There is no place else for them to sleep.”
Spring said she also opposed the 25-cent parking meter hike that will pay for the $1-million program, which will include more housing and public toilets as well as programs for people 17 to 25 years old who have nothing to do during the day. The city estimates that it has about 250 homeless young people.
Although merchants on Shattuck endorsed the plan Wednesday, the men bearing the plastic cups and the shopping carts were not pleased.
“You can’t sleep here, have sex” or urinate on the sidewalks, complained Jakoby Kirby, 28, a panhandler who said he had a brain tumor removed and still suffers seizures. “I somewhat agree with that, but I think it’s taking people’s rights away to smoke, and if people are just dozing off, that shouldn’t be illegal.”
Bates said Berkeley residents are no different than residents of other cities with significant homeless populations.
“People don’t like to see poverty,” he said.
But, he said, the city was not shunning the disadvantaged.
“Berkeley is a compassionate community, and we have more services for the homeless per capita than anyplace in the United States,” he said.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.