Winter is here, but the city of Berkeley is still unprepared to shelter its large homeless population.
Berkeley officials have been consistently slow in addressing the urgency of the city’s homeless crisis. Now that outside temperatures are rapidly dropping, Berkeley City Council must take immediate action to address the severity of the situation while ensuring critical voices from the homeless community are heard and validated.
There are about 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley each night. Emergency winter shelters add 130 beds to the city’s existing 150-bed stock, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín. The math here is clear: Roughly 700 people are still on the streets. The long-term solutions the council has been working towards, such as the Pathways Project, cannot always be prioritized if they fail to resolve the short-term consequences of Berkeley’s most vulnerable population remaining in the cold.
The council must approve Arreguín’s proposal for the expanded winter shelter program at Tuesday’s meeting. Under the proposal, the city will allocate additional revenues to ensure that the shelter will be open every night — as opposed to simply when the temperature drops below 45 degrees or when it’s raining — from December to April.
Another immediate solution is Councilmember Kate Harrison’s proposal to make homeless encampments “safe havens.” Oakland, which has nearly 3,000 homeless people, has already approved these safe havens for encampments. By doing so, the city has been able to provide basic necessities such as portable toilets, wash stations and regular garbage pickup for the residents at a centralized location without fear of police eviction.
Currently, the city is waiting on a response from the city attorney to see if sanctioning encampments is a feasible option, according to Arreguín.
The city has pushed back on sanctioning encampments in the past. Arreguín said in a recent interview that there’s no need to sanction encampments because they are technically permitted as long as they don’t infringe on the health and safety of community members.
But this argument neglects the voices of the homeless community. Though evictions by Berkeley Police Department have not occurred since Arreguín has been mayor, they were frequent under the previous mayor Tom Bates.
Many members of the homeless community have emphasized the importance of encampments, which provide them with stability that they would not otherwise have living alone on the streets.
Stacey Hill, who lived at the “Here There” encampment before it was evicted by law enforcement from BART (which owns the property the camp was on), previously told The Daily Californian that he was able to get food stamps from the Department of Social Services because it recognized his site as a kind of permanent address.
When the First Congregational Church of Berkeley burned down last September, Berkeley was left without an emergency winter shelter. The city chose the North Berkeley Senior Center as a temporary replacement last winter, and the city is using the same location again this year, according to Arreguín. On the city’s website, however, under “Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter,” the only information included is “2017 Winter Shelter information is coming soon.”
It is already December, and still the website lacks basic information about the shelter program. Arreguín said he believes the city has been alternating the shelter at various locations, but why not increase transparency by updating the website with basic shelter information?
Over the last few years, City Council has made several efforts to address this pressing issue. In January 2016, the council declared a yearlong homeless shelter crisis, which it later extended to January 2018 in November 2016. It also created the Hub in January 2016 to centralize city housing services (although the Hub has faced criticism from many community members).
Many council members, including Arreguín, ran on platforms to address one of the city’s most dire situations. Now, their delay in acting on solutions to this issue is disappointing.
We are in a homeless crisis. It’s time to start acting like it.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.