Once again, we are the margin of victory. Despite what people said about young voters losing enthusiasm and the 2008 election being a fluke, we have again defied expectations and turned out in even higher numbers. From the passage of Proposition 30 to re-electing President Barack Obama, our voices were heard, and we were the difference.
The impact of young voters was even felt locally in Berkeley, where Measure S has now been defeated. Measure S, the controversial proposal that would have criminalized sitting on commercial sidewalks during certain hours, was initially leading with an estimated 58 percent of yes votes when early absentee ballots were posted on election night. However, that lead quickly evaporated as the counting continued. I believe the student community played a significant role in the defeat of Measure S.
Though the defeat of Measure S was the right step, it does not mean that we should call it a day on the very important issue of homelessness. In fact, if there was one good thing that came out of this misguided measure, it was that it started a conversation — one that was sorely needed as homelessness continues to be a significant problem. Now that the campaign is over, we are presented with a unique opportunity to come together as a community to explore how to effectively address homelessness in Berkeley.
I represent the Downtown on Berkeley City Council, and as I walk streets every day, I see firsthand the unacceptable situation of homelessness: It’s an issue we can no longer ignore. I also sometimes see people engaged in inappropriate behavior or obstructing sidewalks. That is something we also need to address. Our Downtown and commercial districts need to be inviting to everyone, but that should not come using a heavy hand guised as a helping hand.
That is why I didn’t just oppose Measure S but tried to put forward an alternative proposal and urged council, to no avail, to give the issue the full consideration that it deserved before committing to any approach.
As we continue this conversation, however, it’s important to note how not to approach the complex issue of homelessness. Measure S was hastily put on the ballot by council without consultation with stakeholders, without any data or research and without considering any alternatives. Needless to say, even the Obama administration cautioned us against such measures attempting to cope with the rising homeless populations due to the economy.
As we go forward genuinely addressing homelessness, we need to acknowledge a few things to make sure we start on the right foot:
Sometimes, solutions aren’t so simple. Critical and creative thinking coupled with thorough research is integral to finding any successful solution.
Homelessness’s relationship to economic decline has been documented through countless studies and academic literature as indicative — not causal.
Homelessness is the problem, not homeless people themselves — accountability is better applied to conduct, not condition.
That homelessness is a choice is an insidious myth. Any consideration of the issue demands an honest understanding of the demographics and underpinnings of homelessness. For one example, 1 in 2 foster youth in Alameda County will experience homelessness within their first year of emancipation. A common thread among youth homelessness stems from backgrounds involving instability or abuse.
We do not have enough shelter beds to accommodate our homeless. The $26,000 spent by council to put Measure S on the ballot and the more than $100,000 spent supporting Measure S could have provided enough shelter beds, reopened the Youth Shelter yearlong and bolstered many needed services.
We cannot throw money at the problem. We will need to make our current services more efficient, effective and outcome-oriented by identifying service overlap and gaps. We will also need to identify the necessary funds to address homelessness. The council can start with the surplus funds in our council office budgets that are not necessary to maintain an office.
We have existing laws, such as laws prohibiting obstructing sidewalks, that can and should be enforced. We need to look at existing laws and engage with our police department about enforcement, necessary resources and prioritization.
It’s time to do it right: We need to engage the community and all stakeholders, including, but not limited to, service providers, academics, police officers, merchants, students and homeless individuals themselves.
Our voices matter, and we have shown that time and again. Let’s use our voices to urge the council to give homelessness the serious attention that it deserves. We’ve never shied away from tough issues in Berkeley, and we shouldn’t start now. We are a smart and compassionate city, and I have no doubt that if we are serious about homelessness, we can find solutions that make sense and reflect our values.
Jesse Arreguin is a member of the Berkeley City Council representing District 4.
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