Services not citations needed to address homelessness

On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will be voting on a controversial proposal that will further criminalize the homeless. The plan, called “Berkeley’s Community Commercial Sidewalks and Public Spaces,” includes 10 proposals to cite, arrest and further marginalize our most downtrodden. It only offers one positive proposal — a year-round shelter for transition-age youth on our streets.

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 solutions to end homelessness?

Just focusing on enforcement is a proven failure. 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.

To that end, I strongly believe that we must focus on expanding outreach and services to help end visible homelessness before additional enforcement. That is why I’m introducing the following ideas Tuesday night as an alternative:

1. Return to City Council with information on the feasibility and projected revenues generated from extending parking meter enforcement in Downtown and Telegraph Avenue to 8 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays and return to the council with an ordinance to extend meter enforcement times to 8 p.m. so that revenue can be earmarked to fund the new homeless services proposed.

2. Consider hiring additional homeless outreach staff to provide direct outreach to homeless people living on Berkeley streets to help direct them to housing and services. (The city currently has only one full-time homeless outreach staff person)

3. Consider increasing the days and hours of the Mobile Crisis Unit.

4. Consider whether Berkeley police require additional training regarding interacting with the homeless and the street population and coordinating with mobile crisis and service providers to promote collaboration and facilitate information sharing and regarding how to respond to people with mental illness.

5. Implement the Homeless Commission’s Sept. 16, 2014, recommendation to provide $100,000 in annual rental subsidies for transition-age youth who are chronically homeless in Berkeley.

6. Consider contracting with a nonprofit organization to provide specialized outreach to homeless transition-age youth.

7. Study keeping the Civic Center Park bathroom open 24 hours and providing additional public restrooms in the Telegraph and Downtown areas.

8. Explore providing additional and secure lockers and storage space for the homeless.

9. Study the feasibility of establishing a short-term shelter modeled after the SF Navigation Center that would provide short-term housing for individuals who can’t or don’t want to access shelters because of possessions, partners, pets or prior negative experiences. Ideally, people will stay three to 10 days to stabilize, rest, engage in intensive case management and identify a path, whether it’s housing, treatment, etc.

10. Study the feasibility of acquiring additional single-room occupancy housing or vacant rental properties to provide permanent housing for the homeless.

11. Explore increasing funding to provide more Shelter Plus Care vouchers for homeless individuals to ensure that we maximize federal housing dollars coming to Berkeley.

12. Prioritize housing funds (federal funds and housing trust funds) for transitional and permanent supportive housing, with particular emphasis on chronic homeless and transition-age youth.

13. Increase general fund allocations for existing homeless services to reverse years of funding cuts.

14. Ensure 24-hour access to shelters or services that offer alternatives to living on sidewalks and in public spaces. Ensure better access to services that address basic needs of homeless individuals in order to reduce visible homelessness and transition people off of city streets and into housing.

15. Require the issuance of a warning first before any citation or arrest is made for violation of quality-of-life laws (obstruction of sidewalks, too many possessions on sidewalk, two or more stationary dogs, etc.)

16. Refer to the budget process extending transition-age youth shelter hours beyond winter months.

If you care about compassionate solutions to end homelessness, I encourage you to email City Council at [email protected] to voice your support for this alternative and to come out Tuesday at 7 p.m. to the council meeting at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way to oppose this latest attempt at criminalization and support real solutions.

Jesse Arreguin is a Berkeley City Council member.

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