First, to do no harm: The cruelty of the Second Street and Marina Boulevard evictions

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Beverly Pan/Staff

We characterize them not by what they have managed to retain, but by what they lack — the homeless. They live lives many of us cannot imagine. I drop in on those lives, crawling through a hole in a fence to reach a campsite hidden by bushes next to a freeway, stumbling over a pile of bicycle parts to stoop under a tarp strung up against the back wall of a warehouse, yelling into a jumble of tangled dumpster-dived treasures, shopping carts and food containers from which a head emerges like a gopher from its burrow. “I was attacked all night by rats,” says the head sticking a little further out from its burrow and blinking in the sun.

It’s always them. We debate them, we invoke them in our polemics, we sympathize with them, we scorn them, we lump them into a generic mass, we fantasize about them, we are alternatively charitable and punitive, but they are always the other. We make policies about them; we plan to “solve” their problems. What we don’t do is listen to them. So I leave my home with its soft bed and hot shower, where I can lock the door and be secure in my privacy, and I try.

On Memorial Day on Marina Boulevard, the sun rose over a field of dry grass and fell on a row of RVs and campers in which people had been living for up to a year. Now they were scurrying about in a panic, some angry, some despairing, some resigned, because Berkeley police had arrived in two squad cars and announced that everyone had to leave or they would be ticketed and their vehicles towed. I heard people say: “Where can we go?” “Tell us where it’s legal for us to live.” I heard the police officers say they didn’t know. It wasn’t their job to know.

I heard the same refrain on Second Street a week later, as Berkeley public works crews escorted by police prepared to scoop up anything that people couldn’t move that day. Again people asked, “Where can we go?” and again the police officers repeated their mantra: We don’t know, you gotta go. Three days earlier, the police had posted notices saying that if you are living on Second Street, you are committing the crime of lodging and will be cited and arrested if you don’t leave. Immediately. People had been living on that pitted, potholed, barely paved street amid the dirt and the dust for more than a year. They had created a curbside community in a hive of tents and shanties and ramshackle shelters amid piles of their belongings that was dysfunctional and functional, supportive and predatory, but a community nevertheless. With a bureaucratic keystroke and front loaders and dump trucks, it was gone in a day.

We don’t have a solution to homelessness, not with $1.3 million being the median price of a house in Berkeley; not with the average rent in Berkeley in 2017 being $3,800; not while the complaints of realtors, property owners and business associations that the homeless scare away customers and bring down property values are listened to like the voices of angels singing on high, while the cries of the homeless are lost in the interstellar space that divides “them” from “us”; not until housing is a right and not a commodity.

So admitting that we don’t have a cure for homelessness, let us take as our guide the principle that sums up the duty of doctors to their patients: “First, to do no harm.” If we are to do no harm, we must, for the foreseeable future, find sites for sanctioned campsites and places where people are permitted to live in their vehicles. Simple.

What Berkeley did on Second Street and on Marina Boulevard was harm.

It was also cruel. It should be unusual. Cruel and unusual. The phrase comes from the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” To punish people for doing those things that every human being must do if they are to survive — find shelter from the storm, have a place to lie down and sleep at night — while denying them a way to meet those needs, is cruel and should never become normal. Courts are beginning to look at the treatment of people who are homeless through the lens of the Eighth Amendment. How the constitutional question is decided remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, we should defend human rights even if courts say they are not enshrined in the Constitution. I would hope that Berkeley can find its way to humane treatment of its homeless population without waiting for the courts to find that the Constitution requires it.

Osha Neumann is a supervising attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center.

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  • StanFromSomewhere

    What a bunch of emotive blather. Once again, the usual suspects chant the tired old mantra of “there’s no place to go!” when in fact not only are there plenty of places to go elsewhere, but the vast majority of transients squatting in Berkeley CAME from elsewhere to begin with. Fact of the matter is that with most of these people, homelessness is a LIFESTYLE CHOICE – and Berkeley is the place they choose to do it, thanks to ready access to illicit drugs, prostitution, a target-rich environment for theft and panhandling, and a populace on a collective guilt trip that lacks the spine to stand up and say “enough is enough”.

    • Christoverre Kohler

      What about those that ARE local, have NOT made such a “lifestyle choice”, do NOT want to be homeless and don’t want the kinds of problems you list?

      Where do you suggest they go tonight? Tomorrow ? Owning only as much as they can carry all the time?

      • StanFromSomewhere

        Ever consider that there might be funding and resources available to help the local deserving homeless (a small fraction of the Berkeley homeless, BTW) if they weren’t squandered on the likes of Lee, Zint, the Marina RV squatters, and a bunch of other people who blew into town to take advantage of the local’s generosity and naivete? You goo-goo liberals are long on virtue signaling and self-righteous blather, short on common sense. But then again, you’re the same people who whine and wail about the plight of our own native poor folk while at the same time opposing the enforcement of our own immigration laws.

        • Christoverre Kohler

          I see you’ve stooped to shadow boxing with your own strawman. The weakest of tactics. And I’m no liberal.

          Plus, apparently I have actually considered such things, including facts of the matter while you apparently only lob innuendo and accusations unfounded in reality.

          How did I know that a relevant, key question would spin out the likes of you? Don’t answer that.

          • StanFromSomewhere

            I see you avoided the most important point (supported by facts, BTW) that the reason that Berkeley has 4x the homeless population per capita over most other cities in the area, and a disproportionately high percentage of crime committed by homeless (28% of all police incidents in Berkeley are homeless related) is because of policies that attract many indigent folks, INCLUDING some that were housed ELSEWHERE (Mike Lee being Exhibit A) to Berkeley. Take away those incentives for bums from elsewhere to migrate to Berkeley, then the problem gets a lot smaller (and more manageable). Or is your intent not to really deal with the problem in the first place?

          • Christoverre Kohler

            “Homeless related”? What, more exactly *could* that actaually mean? Crimes commited against homeless people? Or enforcement sprees going after people that are homeless?

            Like cops that roll right by entire groups of students openly drinking cases of beers and jugs of vodka in broad daylight but are sure to go after a homeless individual with one beer in a bag?

  • Man with Axe

    If a home is a right, who is going to pay for it? If the taxpayers of Berkeley are tasked with providing free homes to the homeless, how many homeless will come there to take advantage? What sense does it make to incentivize homeless people to stay in a community with million dollar homes?

    • intec

      The homeless have a right to live here. you sound like a selfish facist.

      • Man with Axe

        Do they have the right to live in your house? If not, then you are the selfish fascist. (You spelled the word wrong.)

        • StanFromSomewhere

          Proper spelling, grammar, punctuation, and use of logic are not high priorities with people who have no aspirations of employment beyond that of low-paid menial labor.

      • StanFromSomewhere

        Why do you encourage the homeless to live in some place where they clearly can not afford, with insufficient services to help them get back on their feet, unless you simply accept homelessness as a permanent lifestyle choice?

        • Christoverre Kohler

          WHY are the “services” so “insufficiet”? For years on end now, we’ve been assured by thoe hired to help the people out of that dire jam that they have, indeed, had plan after program after service designed to take care of this adequately. In fact, there have been U.C. ‘Symposiums” about this, Obama’s HUD went on a ‘road show’ around the country meeting with people employed to handle these matters, other stakeholders and people who were homeless in actual collaborative work sessions

          • StanFromSomewhere

            Well, I wasn’t dumb enough to vote for Obama, if that’s your point.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            How many germane points do you have to miss, dodge and fly over your heard in order to just troll topics? You can’t really believe you’re fooling anyone.

          • StanFromSomewhere

            OK, I took a look at your profile and figured you out. You’re one of those pro-Homeless Criminal People’s Park kooks – LOL!

          • Christoverre Kohler

            LOL. Wrong. But i realize your schtick here requires that you shadow box with your own strawman.

          • StanFromSomewhere

            Funny how a guy with 100 comments but only 6 upvotes thinks he’s winning an argument.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            LOL. You’re tallying ‘upvotes’? Unreal.

          • That Guy

            We can “end homelessness” by getting rid of them.

          • StanFromSomewhere

            “WHY are the “services” so “insufficient”? ”

            They are “insufficent” for the same reason that the crazy pigeon lady in the local park never has enough breadcrumbs to feed all the hungry birds, even though she brings 100 lbs of stale bread every afternoon. Keep providing an attraction, and the demand will quickly outstrip the supply.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            Why would you say that? What do you consider so attractive about what’s being provided?

          • StanFromSomewhere

            “Why would you say that? ”

            Because it’s true (I see that went way over your head).

          • Christoverre Kohler

            Just because you pretend it.

      • That Guy

        And we have the right to kick them back to Las Vegas.

    • Christoverre Kohler

      Well, other places HAVE been implementing the so-called “Housing First” method. No, Berkeley City’s use of the term isn’t the same. Berkeley is one of the places with a ubiquitous use of the rather ambiguous buzz words: “services”, “resources”, “programs”. Do you know what those are?

      The concept has been that, by and large, most people who are homeless have something wrong with them seriously enough that it must be dealt with by bureaucracy and various professionals . . . even before adequately housing them. What could be so wrong with so many people that the “compassionate” thing to do is leave them meagrely fending for themselves living outdoors (where?) until whatever is supposedly fixed somehow enough? Otherwise, all those words actually mean helping them all remain homeless, but providing some modest food, nominal personal supplies, perhaps a mail address, etc.

      Genuine Housing First does just what it sounds like: “solve homelessness” by getting those people housed. And not packed like sardines in “shelters” only at night being treated like inmates. In fact, a couple of states get them into apartments just like other citizens have. THEN an array of services/programs/etc. are available too… if they wish. Do you have any real idea just how hard it can be to live outside, sleeping in doorways, lugging what little belongings you can?

      Guess what? That turns out to manifestly get homeless people off the streets and no longrr be homeless! And it’s been costing LESS to do so!

      Folks that show up in these Comments always only trying to paint all people stuck homeless with the very worst examples SHOULD be scrutinizing… those in the city ostensibly missioned with adequately taking care of these things. For years. Bold claims and plans have been waved at us from time to time. Well… where are the RESULTS we all have paid for and hired them to achieve?

      Another facet we ought to probably more carefully consider is the raw fact that Berkeley has been RECEIVING MILLIONS and MILLIONS of dollars, each and every year BECAUSE OF THE PEOPLE HERE WHO ARE HOMELESS. You can tell that homeless people are NOT getting much of all that cash. Who is? What’s it all been spent on?

      • Man with Axe

        I don’t object to what you are suggesting, i.e., housing people (temporarily) so that they can get back on their feet. But not in Berkeley, where students complain about a housing shortage and where real estate costs a fortune. Insist that the homeless move to a place (somewhere inland, perhaps) where the cost of providing them with temporary shelter is within reason. While they are so ensconced, ascertain whether each individual can be helped or needs to be institutionalized. And if it’s the latter, institutionalize him.

        • StanFromSomewhere

          Note the continuing emphasis and priorities of those who chant their “right to be in Berkeley” mantra – any thought of relocating these people to somewhere with a lower cost of living, suitable housing/facilities, or better opportunities for employment/training/treatment is simply out of the question with them. It’s not about actually HELPING the homeless out of their particular predicament, it’s about enabling their presence and making sure that the status quo is maintained.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            Once a person isn’t homeless, they don’t have that status to maintain. Your attempted argument swallows its own tail.

          • StanFromSomewhere

            Your geriatric hippie logic fails you once again. It’s quite clear that you goo-goo liberals are only interested in having homeless people underfoot to “afflict the comfortable” as you would put it, not to actually help the homeless get back on their feet.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            Again, though, once people are “homed” there are less homeless people “underfoot” or otherwise. I realize you can only keep trying to rush past that to make those false accusations instead.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            while those chanting Reinvent Berkeley As Just One Big Gated Developer Wet Dream sell off “community” in trade for their profits.

        • Christoverre Kohler

          But WHY are students complaining about a housing shortage? And is there actually a lack of vacant residential units? Is everything filled to the brim? No, it’s not. So wht have there been so manystudents that have had to do so while living homeless?

          I’ve managed commercial residential property in Berkeley, Oakland and S.F., by the way. I’ve been pretty close to these issues for some time.

          • Man with Axe

            When people complain about a housing shortage what they mean is that there are not enough units at a price they can afford. Taking some of the scarce lower-rent units and providing them to homeless people in the Berkeley area exacerbates the problem for Berkeley students, who will then have to pay an even higher rent than they do now.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            6The students’ problem is both *created* and exacerbated by UC. deliberately over-registering by thousands knowing there is not enough appropriate housing for them. Or profiteers devoted to inflating rents. To overlook the machiavellian sources of the “problems” only to throw others under that bus is irrational. Maybe you’re among the profiteers that think “market” not “community”.

          • Man with Axe

            The University can enroll as many students as it has classroom space for. It is not responsible for housing those students given that there is an entire city for them to live in. If a particular student cannot afford the cost of living in or near Berkeley he should go to a different university where he can afford the total cost of his education. As for the so-called profiteers increasing rents: it doesn’t work that way. A landlord can only charge the going rate for his apartments. If he tries to charge more than the going rate no one will rent his apartments. Landlords don’t always make that much money. They have mortgages, real estate taxes, maintenance and repairs, and sometimes tenants who skip on the last month’s rent. If there is rent control it is even worse for landlords. If there is a shortage of affordable housing it is almost always the fault of the government for getting in the way of building new units or not allowing landlords to charge the market rate, creating the incentive to take units off the rental market.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            As it happens, I have been a seasoned property manager in the bay area for some years, which has included commercial residential properties both market rate and various ‘affordable housing’, in Berkeley, Oakland and S.F. Also during the notorious ‘dot bomb’ tumultuous ‘bubble’, as it first inflated, drifted and eventually ‘popped’.

            There are a number of issues and dynamics involved, of course. Among those are vagaries of maneuvers properties do in efforts to free units from pricing constraints and to opportunisticly maximize revenue. Some methods do, indeed, remove unit availability at least for some spans of time. This is also, in part, why there are efforts to levy a ‘vacancy’ tax. It diminishes the potential value of dubious methods while reaping revenues which may be available toward other affordable housing. Obviously, there could be no such tax revenues of note if there were no real number of vacancies.

          • Christoverre Kohler

            As for what U.C. “can do” that most certainly can even seriously clash with what “ought to” be done otherwise. Possibly even what U.C. will be “able to” do, as there are currently specific efforts underway to disallow such over-enrollment and the consequent deleterious effects upon staff, students and the larger communities locally.
            The matters are articulated rather well in a resolution by
            The Student Union Assembly from which I excerpt:

            ” ​[T]he enrollment of additional students has increased the demand on both
            academic and instructional workers, such as graduate students, lecturers, clerical staff and service workers;

            WHEREAS,​ in addition to the staffing and labor shortages that negatively impact
            students and their experience at the UC, the University notably lacks sufficient
            resources to support students, including but not limited to housing, food,
            transportation, psychological support services and classroom spaces;
            WHEREAS,​ in particular, due to the increased demand for housing by the increased
            number of enrolled students and the insufficient resources the University has to provide
            students with housing, the University has decreased the housing guarantees for
            incoming students;
            WHEREAS,​ many UC campuses are consistently ranked as the most expensive college towns in the country, off-campus housing is an exorbitantly expensive option;
            WHEREAS,​ the long-term residents of the neighborhoods surrounding many (if no every) UC campuses are concerned about their respective UC campus’ significant
            increase in enrollment, especially due to the fact that a growth in student population leads to increased traffic in the surrounding area and higher rent prices that affect both students and long-term residents of the area, and the University of California Student
            Association (hereafter “UCSA”) echoes these concerns;
            WHEREAS,​ the University has been placing students in spaces not suitable for living,
            including dormitory lounges, and increasing the number of students who live in
            residential spaces. For example, many rooms that were made for a single resident now hold more than one student and the campus has seen an increase in rooms that hold more than three students. Through these actions, the University is subjecting many students to overcrowded living situations, often resulting in circumstances that
            jeopardizes students’ mental health, or even violate fire codes”.

            Perhaps you are among the exploitive that do not care about such transgressions and damage?

          • Man with Axe

            Your comment starts with the assumption that the government has the right to determine what a particular landlord should be allowed to charge for rent. I don’t agree. In fact, it is a fundamental principle that a property owner should be allowed to sell what he owns (the leasehold interest) at the price that the market will bear. Thus the concept of “…efforts to free units from pricing constraints and to opportunistically maximize revenue…” gets it exactly backwards. It is the pricing constraints that are the unnatural elements of this situation and a major cause of the housing shortage. When you sell your labor do you want the government limiting how much you can get paid? I didn’t think so.

            I can’t imagine a stupider notion than a vacancy tax. Property owners have every incentive to make the most productive use of their property. Absent laws interfering with productive uses the incentive could work properly. But foolish ideas like rent control, unnecessarily invasive building codes, and one-sided tenants’ rights legislation make it very hard to put some marginal properties to productive use. Hence, they stay vacant. Taxing the vacancy would then incentivize owners to put the property to some non-productive (money-losing) use just to avoid paying the tax.

            It is wrong to blame the university alone for the overcrowded housing situation. Students also bear some responsibility for deciding to attend a university that they know to be overcrowded. Like being in a traffic jam, each driver is part of the problem at the same time he complains about it. Go to school somewhere else.