Berkeley homeless community occupies Old City Hall with plans to grow

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Zainab Ali/Staff

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On the front lawn of Old City Hall as of Sunday afternoon, about 40 members of the Berkeley homeless community and other groups have pitched tents and erected signs as part of what they call an occupation of the premises.

The occupation began Nov. 16 as a way to protest amendments to city ordinances proposed at Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting, which include a ban on public urination and the creation of storage facilities for personal belongings. The amendments to regulate street behavior and increase park policing at night were approved that evening.

Since Monday, the number of people occupying the lawn has steadily increased from approximately six people to about 40 occupants by Sunday afternoon, according to Mike Zint, an organizer of First They Came for the Homeless, a self-advocacy group for the homeless.

The occupation addresses a larger controversy between the city and homeless groups, who argue that the city has supported policies that criminalize the homeless. To some small businesses and Berkeley residents, the amendments passed Tuesday would bring cleaner and safer streets to the city.

But Zint said one of the occupation’s overall themes was to show the city and other Berkeley residents that homeless individuals can be self-sufficient despite the amendments passed Tuesday night.

“The homeless don’t need to be cared for,” he said. “We need to be allowed to care for ourselves.”

Leaders of the growing occupation are reaching out to other groups lining the West Coast for support — many of which are based in cities such as Los Angeles, Humboldt and Santa Cruz, according to Zint. Additional supporters from Texas, Oregon and Washington are en route to Berkeley to participate.

According to Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White, there are no immediate plans to intervene, though he said police officers have been monitoring the area intermittently.

“There’s a lot of things happening in the city of Berkeley that we have to take care of aside from what’s happening there,” White said, adding that police will intervene if any safety issues arise.

According to Zint, the occupation, which he said is not an encampment, has been kept civil and organized. The group has a code of conduct that restricts drug and alcohol use. Zint said the majority of the occupiers have abided by such rules.

Leaders of the occupation do not have any plans to relocate from their current position. Instead, Zint said he hopes to draw a “critical mass” of occupiers by Dec. 1.

“This is how we are going to win,” Zint said. “The homeless community is going to come together with all of their problems, and we are going to overcome those problems through a full collaboration.”

Contact Cassandra Vogel at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cass_vogxz.