Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness considers encampments policy

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Audrey Mcnamara/Senior Staff

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A new set of proposed policies that aim to shift the city’s response to homeless encampments were presented at the Thursday morning meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness.

Rather than focusing strictly on enforcement, the proposed policies emphasize providing resources to help residents of encampments transition into shelters and housing, a memo from Mayor Jesse Arreguin stated. On Feb. 7, a lawyer for First They Came for the Homeless sent a letter to the committee alleging that the city has consistently violated unhoused residents’ legal protections and constitutional rights during homeless encampment disbandments.

Among the complaints were allegations that city officials discarded or confiscated homeless residents’ valuable belongings such as wallets and cellphones during disbandments, sometimes giving them only 15 minutes to collect their items.

“(The proposed policies) are starting points for conversations,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who is a member of the Ad Hoc Committee. “This proposal is the first piece in a continuum of things that we are looking at.”

There are currently more than 20 homeless encampments in the city of Berkeley, according to Arreguin’s memo, including some in areas that the city has deemed dangerous, such as near busy intersections and on street medians.

The memo states that the only cause for enforcement action related to homeless encampments would be illegal lodging on public property or public health and safety concerns. Locations would be prioritized for encampment removal based on their size, the number of complaints they receive, whether they pose safety concerns and their public impact.

Additionally, the proposed policies set up a three-stage city outreach plan to precede encampments disbursements that would include meeting with the informal leaders of encampments and providing written notice of impending disbandment.

EmilyRose Johns, an attorney from Siegel & Yee who represents First They Came for the Homeless, noted that though she had hoped that the city would sanction encampments, other policies cited in the proposal are an improvement, such as giving encampment residents more time to collect belongings and storing left-behind items in weather-proof containers.

“That the city is looking to engage with homeless residents in any way that removes the appearance that homelessness is a crime is positive,” Johns said.

But member of First They Came for the Homeless Guy “Mike” Lee expressed that he did not trust that the city would follow through with its promises, even if the proposals were adopted.

Lee alleged that his laptop, cell phone and tent, among other items, were all lost or damaged after being taken during disbandments. He plans to file two lawsuits against the city by the end of next week.

“We’re not interested in anything they have to propose,” Lee said.  “Whatever procedures they come up with, they’re not going to follow them.”

Contact Jessica Lynn and Aleah Jennings-Newhouse at [email protected].

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