Berkeley considers homeless encampment sanitation facilities after state hepatitis A outbreaks

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Ciecie Chen/File

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City Council will consider a resolution to provide port-a-potties, wash stations, trash removal and hepatitis A vaccines to homeless encampment residents at its meeting Tuesday, in light of recent hepatitis A outbreaks in California.

The resolution, submitted by the city’s Homeless Commission, states that sanitation facilities for homeless individuals are key in preventing hepatitis A outbreaks. According to the resolution, however, the cost of implementing such facilities is “unknown.”

No cases of hepatitis A have been reported in Berkeley or Alameda County thus far, though multiple cases have been reported in San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. Chakko cited the hepatitis A vaccine as the “most powerful tool” in preventing outbreak of the disease. He also said the city has been taking preventive measures since September.

“This is not new to us, so even though there are no cases, we wanted to be proactive,” Chakko said.

Mike Zint, founder of First They Came for the Homeless, said in an email that he supports the provision of port-a-potties and wash stations, adding that distribution of sanitation facilities to the homeless population is “critical.”

“The city is hitting (hepatitis A) both ways. Prevention and vaccine. I agree completely,” Zint said in an email. “The outreach to the community needs to reach the homeless.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington expressed concern about the urgency conveyed in the resolution, as he said he believes sanitation facilities should be implemented with care and precision in order to avoid negative unintended consequences. For instance, poorly maintained wash stations and port-a-potties could in fact spread disease rather than prevent it, he said.

Worthington also said he believes the city should prioritize the establishment of a second winter shelter in order to address homelessness in a more concrete manner.

“My focus is getting more people into housing and shelters more than taking care of them on the streets. It’s more important to get more people off the street. That’s my priority,” Worthington said. “These other things are minor ameliorations.”

Homeless activist Guy “Mike” Lee raised another concern, stating that the resolution “muddles the issue” by combining numerous proposals rather than focusing exclusively on what he believes to be the primary problem: open defecation. The widespread provision of port-a-potties and the opening of BART bathrooms, he said, are the most essential aspects of disease prevention.

Lee added that a potential hepatitis A outbreak in Berkeley is a public health crisis and thus extends beyond the homeless community.

Lee also said he is uncertain about the council’s motivation to raise the funds needed to implement the proposals mentioned in the resolution. He said creative fundraising is necessary, one of his ideas being a dunk tank featuring “(Mayor) Jesse Arreguín in a Speedo.”

“The political leadership has to be willing to embarrass themselves for the good of the community,” Lee said. “That’s where you get the money from, guaranteed.”

Danielle Kaye is the lead city government reporter.. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.