Homeless by choice

The Devil's Advocate

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There are two major points of contention in the bitter debate over Berkeley’s Measure S, which would prohibit sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The first concerns the vitality of local businesses and the quality of life for Berkeley residents. On this front, proponents of Measure S unambiguously have the upper hand. In a 2011 survey, about 65 percent of the more than 1,800 respondents — most of whom were students —  said they would frequent Telegraph Avenue more often if there were fewer panhandlers. We don’t need a survey to tell us this — it’s clear to anyone who has been to Telegraph that the extraordinary rate of homelessness and aggressive panhandling makes the area much less desirable.

When I speak to opponents of Measure S, they are unable to adequately counter this point, besides making the laughable assertion that vagrancy in commercial areas is somehow a part of Berkeley’s “character” that should be preserved.

The second area of disagreement in the Measure S debate involves the most ethical and effective way to deal with homelessness — also an important concern to many Berkeley voters. On this subject, the debate is tighter.

The Yes on S campaign argues that “living on the sidewalks is unhealthy. It sends people into a downward spiral.” And Davida Coady, the director of a program that provides substance abuse treatment to the homeless, told KQED that the measure would help encourage homeless people with addictions to seek help.

But No on S advocates say the city should look for “real solutions to homelessness” instead of “discriminating against an entire class of people who happen to be poor.” This framing of the issue is likely to resonate with progressive Berkeley voters.

In preparation for this column, I spoke with several homeless people on Telegraph last Friday. It became clear to me that Measure S advocates should be able to take control of the second part of the debate by drawing attention to the fact that many homeless people in the Telegraph area — at least the ones I talked to — are not victims of poverty and misfortune but practitioners of a bizarre subculture that glorifies homelessness.

Most of the people who were camped out on Telegraph were in their early 20s. They sat on piles of sleeping bags or mattress pads, some of them shouting at passing pedestrians and cars, their pet pit bulls and cats tied to lamp posts. All of them told me that they chose to be homeless.

Some were local, but others traveled from as far as Kansas to come to Berkeley, which they described as especially accommodating of homelessness (“there’s lots of places to get free food here”). To them, homelessness is an alternative culture — a way to rebel against “the system.”

Though some of the young people I spoke to seemed to be intoxicated, they appeared to be in generally good health. One man even told me his oral hygiene is very important to him and that he brushes his teeth twice per day. He said he frequently uses the bathroom at local coffee shops.

In other words, these homeless individuals may be nice people, but they are not helpless victims who have fallen on hard times. They are, quite literally, vagrants by choice who create an unsanitary environment in public spaces (one man told me his dogs go the bathroom “anywhere they want”), panhandle and shout at passers-by — simply because they want to.

They come to Berkeley because it is so welcoming of them — indeed, it is hard to imagine any other town tolerating this level of abuse of its commercial spaces by nomadic vagrants. Measure S may, in fact, be the only “real solution” to this particular variety of homelessness.

Measure S opponents have noble intentions. They believe they are defending the weak and helpless against scapegoating by a reactionary majority. But they have not, in my view, made a convincing case that restricting vagrancy in commercial areas would harm the homeless. And they have failed to address an important truth — that many people in Berkeley are homeless by choice.

My sense is that voters are already convinced that Measure S would improve Berkeley residents’ quality of life and help local businesses. If any voters are still on the fence, it is because they are concerned that the measure would be ineffective at actually reducing homelessness in Berkeley. Measure S proponents can win over these voters by emphasizing that many of Berkeley’s homeless are not victims in need of protection but voluntarily homeless wanderers who settle in Berkeley simply because it is so accommodating. By making vagrancy slightly less convenient, Measure S would encourage these young people to rebel against the system elsewhere.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @jawillick.