Berkeley Homeless Commission talks city confiscation protocol, tiny houses

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Leslie Yang/Staff

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At its Wednesday meeting, the Berkeley Homeless Commission expressed concerns about the city policy regarding property confiscation, which allows city officials to confiscate items deemed unattended after two hours.

The policy states that if confiscated items are estimated by city officials to cost more than $100, the city is required to store them for 90 days. Items estimated to be worth less than $100 are stored for two weeks.

Several commissioners raised questions about the current methods of determining ownership of confiscated property and about how property found in places such as freeway underpasses is handled, especially when city officials’ jurisdiction over the area is unclear.

Commissioner Jeffrey Davis said “there isn’t any gold standard” for determining property value, adding that some people “may see a sleeping bag that’s unrolled and think that it’s trash.”

“We’re talking about criteria for the determination of the value of this property and the discretion that people are using,” said Commissioner Paul Kealoha Blake at the meeting. “In general, I’m looking towards something that is really crystal clear in terms of the handling of the property, where it goes and what it is.”

The meeting comes after an encampment outside the Berkeley Main Post Office was disbanded Tuesday, though it had existed since November 2014. According to encampment member Mike Wilson, most of the personal property belonging to the occupants was confiscated by officials. In November 2015, Berkeley City Council passed amendments to city ordinances that regulate street behavior and increase nighttime policing.

At the meeting, program supervisor Tenli Yavneh from the city’s Mental Health Division discussed issues regarding the city’s policy on storage of unattended property at the meeting. Currently, homeless people who have had their property confiscated are referred to the division, which assists in retrieving their belongings.

Commissioners agreed that the Mental Health Division’s role in reuniting persons with their belongings is outside of its capacity, especially with the recent rise in city confiscations.

“There’s been an increase in this sort of activity, which is why I’m not entirely sure that Mental Health (Division) should be tasked with this — you’ve got a lot to do already,” Kealoha Blake said. “Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t as much of this happening, but recently, there’s been a lot of this happening — every three months or so, there’s an incident of confiscated unattended property.”

During the meeting, the commission also discussed possibly implementing “tiny houses,” a type of affordable housing that has been introduced in cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle with varying results.

Wilson said the movement toward tiny housing would represent a temporary step toward alleviating homelessness.

“As far a solution to homelessness, it is not a permanent solution, but it is an inexpensive temporary solution,” Wilson said.

During the meeting, commissioners decided to get more detailed information regarding tiny houses and discuss forming a subcommittee on the issue at their next meeting.

No action was taken on the funding request for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s Hub system, which provides access to services and housing for the homeless.

“The coordinated entry system is about leading to housing and less about shelter,” said city community services specialist Jennifer Vasquez about the Hub, adding that it would provide “different options, and people will get referred to different types of services based on their need.”

The commission will reconvene May 10 and will focus on tiny housing and finding rental housing for individuals with subsidies.

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