‘A movement of free people’: The history of Berkeley homeless encampments as protest

Debbie Yuen/Staff

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Depending on how you tell the story, it began in spring 2014 outside of a Staples in Downtown Berkeley.

The U.S. Postal Service had decided to allow Staples to operate postal counters at its stores, prompting the local homeless activist group First They Came for the Homeless — which had formed in 2011 during Occupy San Francisco — to initiate their first protest in Berkeley.

“It was just tabling at first, but we realized that they’re open very early in the morning (and) stay open very late at night,” said James Blair, a member of the boycott who goes by the name Jim Squatter. “We’d need to be there a lot of the time.”

The group decided to set up camp in front of the store, passing out leaflets and protesting what they called the “privatization” of the postal service, the first of many political issues the group has gathered around since.

The encampment was the first of many to come for First They Came for the Homeless, which would spend the next few years moving around Berkeley and increasing its presence in the community.

More than three years later, encampments organized by the group stand in three different locations across Berkeley. The encampments are now well-known as a form of viscerally striking protest — customers and residents walking down the street cannot avoid seeing tents and sleeping bags. But the encampments are also frequently cited by participants as an inclusive and effective route to help homeless Berkeley residents find support and direction in a city strapped for resources.

History of the encampment

In fall 2014, when the encampment discovered that USPS was attempting to sell the Berkeley Post Office, the encampment — in coalition with activist group Berkeley Post Office Defenders — relocated their protest from Staples to the front of the post office in an attempt to save it. The sale fell through in December of that year, but the group remained at the site for 17 months until police officers disbanded them in April 2016.

But before they were disbanded, First They Came for the Homeless initiated another protest in fall 2015 known as “Liberty City.” Setting up camp outside of Old City Hall, the group protested more restrictive street behavior ordinances (which some characterized as criminalizing homelessness) the city was attempting to enact. But the ordinances were approved in November, and after issuing the residents four eviction notices, the city disbanded the encampment in early December 2015.

Then in October 2016, the “Poor Tour” was born — a series of protest encampments that moved around Berkeley, as it was continuously disbanded by the city.

“(The Poor Tour) traveled around several locations in the city of Berkeley doing two things: One was refusing to break up, and the other was refusing to leave the city,” said Adam Bredenberg, who joined the Poor Tour in mid-October 2016.

From October through December 2016, the encampment popped up across neighborhoods of Berkeley — near Berkeley Bowl, at the intersection of Adeline and Fairview streets and even back to Old City Hall. The city dismantled all of these camps, forcing residents to relocate. In total, the “Poor Tour” underwent 17 disbandments.

“Those people moved to many visible locations in the city of Berkeley to demonstrate that you could not make homeless people disappear just because you forced them out of a specific location,” Bredenberg said.

On Jan. 9, residents began setting up camp at a new location where they would remain for the next 10 months — at the “Here There” sculpture on Adeline and 63rd streets, beside BART tracks and just on the edge of Oakland.

Neither here nor there, the group settled into a border between Berkeley and Oakland, after months of repeated disbandment.

An “intentional community”

As the Poor Tour traveled around Berkeley and eventually landed at the “Here There” location, the encampment did more than just protest. Residents call it an “intentional community” — a community with its own set of rules to help residents help themselves.

“This camp provides the proper environment for personal growth, empowerment, self realization, and they become a part of something,” said Mike Zint, founder of First They Came for the Homeless, in an email. “There is no pressure to perform, other than picking up after yourself.”

The encampment operates according to a clear set of rules and a system of self-governance, according to Zint. Drug and alcohol use is banned, and residents are required to clean up after themselves.

And this system has afforded residents, some of whom are disabled, something they said is not accessible when you live on the streets — stability.

“Disabled people, they can’t move water easily. They can’t put up and take down tents every day or every afternoon,” Bredenberg said. “It just gets rough for them. … The pressures are multiplied. So if they can stay in the same place for a while, that’s much better.”

Bredenberg noted how another resident who requires a wheelchair is able to keep it in his tent, having the security of knowing that it will not be stolen during the night.

The presence of the Poor Tour throughout the city and its longevity at the “Here There” location has also allowed it to garner community attention and awareness to its project, which has brought its own set of advantages, residents said.

Encampment resident Stacey Hill said he was able to receive food stamps easily because of the recognition the encampment has received.

“When I went down to the Department of Social Services and told them I was here they gave me food stamps with no problem,” Hill said. “I’d never got food stamps like that. It was like ‘Oh, you’re where? Oh, just wait a minute — we’ll take care of you.’ Because we’re known, I got recognition. That’s the same type of security I could get if I provide them with an address.”

Earlier this year, a woman with Alzheimer’s disease ended up at the encampment after leaving her home in Fresno, according to Hill. Believing she was heading home, the woman arrived in Berkeley, where she had grown up. She did not have a place to stay, until someone suggested she move into the encampment. Residents were able to help the woman and provide her with shelter until her daughter found her a few months later.

Since the encampment’s inception, three residents interviewed for this story said they only know of two members of the encampment who have received housing from the city’s Homeless Coordinated Entry System, also known as the Hub: Zint and Guy “Mike” Lee, a homeless activist who ran for mayor in the 2016 election.

“That’s a pretty high bar for your average disabled person to get housing,” said encampment resident Sam Clune. “You have to lead a disparaged protest movement or run for mayor.”

Tackling the housing crisis

In October, City Council declared a homeless shelter crisis, allowing city staff the ability to rapidly create shelter.

As part of Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s Pathways Project to address homelessness, a Bridge Living Community is expected to open this winter, which will offer extended stays for those without permanent housing. The facility will also offer housing navigation, drug and mental health treatment and employment assistance.

“I strongly believe that once people have a roof over their head, even temporarily, it provides safety, dignity and respite,” Arreguín said in a statement.

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, the Hub has permanently housed 101 “high-needs, vulnerable homeless people” since it was established in January 2016. But according to a city survey done earlier this year, Berkeley currently has 972 homeless residents.

Chakko added that the city directs more than $5 million toward community agencies to deliver services to the homeless. Recently, Chakko said the city has made other efforts to address homelessness, such as the creation of a homeless outreach team and the expansion of winter shelter capacity.

But in a city known for its ballooning affordable housing crisis, Arreguín acknowledged that the issue of homelessness cannot be addressed overnight.

“This problem took decades to develop and will not be solved in one or even a couple of years,” Arreguin said in his statement. “That is why our approach has been to leave homeless encampments in place unless there are health and safety concerns.”

Despite a lack of housing, Hill and Bredenberg attest that the stability afforded by the encampment has enabled residents to move on to better options. Many people who have stayed at the encampment have been able to find jobs, vehicles or even just temporary stability.

Bredenberg explained that by allowing residents to stay in one place for weeks or months at a time, the encampment can help alleviate stress on their bodies, allowing residents to address other needs.

“If you never have any idea where you’re going to sleep that night, or if you don’t have enough shelter to stay warm, then you’re thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow,” Bredenberg said.

An uncertain future

The encampment’s 10-month long stay at “Here There” came to an abrupt end Oct. 21 when eviction notices from BART Police Department appeared around the camp. Neighbors had complained to BART alleging unlawful activity at the encampments, according to BART spokesperson Jim Allison.

“You are trespassing on private property in violation of California Penal Code 602(m) and are hereby ordered to vacate the premises and PERMANENTLY remove all of your property,” the notices said.

The eviction notices also appeared at a second encampment on the other side of the BART tracks, unaffiliated with the “Here There” encampment.

With only 72 hours before they would be required to vacate the area, residents of the “Here There” encampment filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order against BART. On Oct. 24, the morning before their expected eviction, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that BART would be temporarily prohibited from evicting the encampment, giving the plaintiffs more time to put their full case together and present it at a second hearing the following week.

But when the Oct. 31 hearing arrived, Alsup ruled in BART’s favor, allowing it to evict the encampment. The next day, eviction notices had reappeared throughout the camp. By Nov. 3, residents had already begun relocating.

But the protest lives on. Now, the encampment stands at three separate locations — Old City Hall, Aquatic Park and near the “Here There” signs.

When it came time to relocate from the “Here There” encampment, Bredenberg explained that some residents did not want to join the protest at Old City Hall, so the group identified additional locations where new communities have since formed.

Though the original “Here There” space has been fenced off, a set of tents remains on the space of grass on the opposite side of the sidewalk.

The three different locations, across city neighborhoods, give homeless residents a wider breadth of options to fit their needs, Bredenberg said, though each camp continues to use the same rules and ideas of First They Came for the Homeless.

Bredenberg, who resides at the encampment at Old City Hall, said the encampment chose the spot to continue to protest their treatment by the city.

“This is a movement of free people, and everyone has their self-determination,” Bredenberg said. “It’s, I suppose, a bit of an experiment, but it’s been going pretty well so far. (The new encampments are) all stable and safe as far as I know.”

According to Hill, some residents chose to establish a new encampment near the “Here There” site, as the location afforded them a greater connection to the Berkeley community — a connection they had built up over their 10-month long stay.

When asked whether the encampments will be evicted again, Chakko said encampment enforcements “are based on a complaint-driven process that focuses on health and safety concerns.”

Now, the future for the encampment — a movement that has always been centered around independence and allowing people to do what will best benefit themselves — remains unclear, Bredenberg said.

But Zint emphasized that the encampment’s impact on individuals has already surpassed what the original members of the Poor Tour expected when it first began.

“This is not just a homeless camp,” Zint said. “It is a protest and it’s all about human rights, proper diet, health (and) caring about each other. … Our message is self-sufficiency and community. We do things that are right to help others.”

Sydney Fix is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydney_fix.

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  • Left Unsaid

    An open air insane asylum.

  • Marcia Poole

    First They Came for the Homeless and the Poor Tour do great work. They are clean and sober encampments.They clean up their encampments, keep noise down, and are polite to the neighbors who come by to talk with them. They are good people. I find the hatred and name calling that I see in the comments very unsettling. This is the future in America under our present administration. People who live here are priced out of housing. There aren’t SROs anymore. I prefer to see good people camped together and protecting each other and sharing community to seeing people alone in doorways, on the streets and under bridges. We should help and be glad they have one another in these trying times.

    • jim hoch

      So can the rest of us get rid of the noisy, crazy, drug using homeless from our neighborhoods? Or is this only a privilege for them?

  • Curtis Jones

    What BS the homeless are druggies, mental cases and downright parasites. Shove them all into a bottomless pit.

    • From the Trenches

      Hey Curtis, what’s the deal with your profile pic? I do not want to verbalize what it seems to be w/o you expianing it.

      • Curtis Jones

        It is what it is, I have escaped from Kali and look forward to the day that NK nukes it.

  • Concernedresidentofearth

    There must be a point where those protesting their horrible treatment figure out that they might be treated better elsewhere. Decamp for another city – you might find that another city treats you better.

  • lspanker

    These people are for the most part out-of-town parasites taking advantage of Berkeley’s misguided generosity. Why do you treat them as if they are part of some legitimate protest movement?

    • intec

      They are excersising there natural and civil rights. You so worried about poeple who have nothing when you should be protesting the elite who Rob you blind.

      • lspanker

        You keep on repeating this nonsense about squatting being a “civil right”. Do you have any credible sources to back up your claim?

        • Yeah, he has some supreme court precedent on his side both recent and going back all the way to the 1930s/early 40s. Starting with the Great Depression, the legal traditions that justified poor laws in all forms began to lose their rationale.

          The court’s concern began with the depression-born recognition that capitalism could not reliably employ people or keep the willing-to-work out of destitution. That was the price of industrial development — less actual demand for work. Subsequent jurisprudence in this area has had to react to more recent anti-poor laws by noting that people, generally, have a right to exist without criminal penalty for doing so.

          • lspanker

            So after that long-winded blathering session, are you going to provide us with that cite that proves that squatting is a “civil right”? Didn’t think so… silly liberal.

          • You can see my essay “The moral pestilence of paupers: an examination of vagrancy laws from the middle ages to present day Berkeley” on the Berkeley Daily Planet web site. It was published in the November 13, 2015 edition.

          • lspanker

            The Daily Planet… right up there with Granma and Pradva…

    • These people are for the most part out-of-town parasites taking advantage of Berkeley’s misguided generosity.

      I believe you’ve been quite frank elsewhere that you lived her as a student, developed a dislike for Berkeley, and now live elsewhere — yet nowadays you comment a lot on Berkeley-local issues, in local-serving forums.

      Is it really your place to complain that, in your arm-chair estimation, “most” homeless are “out-of-town parasites”?

      • lspanker

        Did you actually have an argument to make? Apparently not, which is why you seek to make an issue of my current residence. Does that somehow exclude me from taking an interest in my alma mater and commenting accordingly in online version of the campus paper?

        • I’m just pointing out how your own line of reasoning applies to you. I think your line of reasoning about “out of town parasites” is vacuous but if you feel otherwise, well, what’s good for the goose…

          • lspanker

            As usual, no real argument from the troll…