Berkeley City Council will make key decisions concerning the homeless population, such as whether to prohibit lying and camping near the Downtown Berkeley BART station, during its regular Thursday meeting.
The Downtown Berkeley BART station plaza, which has been under construction since 2016, is set to be completed this month. A controversial recommendation from Mayor Jesse Arreguín would enforce regulations of unpermitted lodging — through California Penal Code Section 647(e) — and sidewalk obstruction.
The purpose of the recommendation, according to Arreguín’s proposal, is to make the plaza, which cost the city $7.6 million, safe and “welcoming.” The plaza would serve the 30,000 commuters who arrive daily by BART, AC Transit and the UC Berkeley Bear Transit shuttle.
“(It’s) about keeping Berkeley’s Downtown business district attractive for consumers. The plaza is the entrance for money,” said Mike Zint, co-founder of homeless rights activist group First They Came for the Homeless, in an email. “Things that are perceived as a threat to that money will be prevented. Poor people in sight are a threat.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he is unsure whether Arreguín’s recommendation will be passed, but that City Council has approved several “anti-homeless policies” in the past.
California Penal Code Section 647(e) is similar to an ordinance that Worthington said was recently ruled unconstitutional by federal courts in Boise, Idaho. The judges concluded that the 8th Amendment prevents criminalizing homeless people “sitting, sleeping, or lying outside.”
“There are those who would like to think the Mayor is mean spirited,” said homeless activist Guy “Mike” Lee in an email. “Like a typical politician he is doing the bidding of the Downtown Berkeley Association.”
Councilmember Kate Harrison said she was concerned about people receiving misdemeanors for violating the penal codes in Arreguín’s proposal. She added that she does not support the criminalization of homeless people.
“We need to put a lot more attention on solution rather than enforcing minor violations,” Worthington said.
At the meeting, City Council will also vote on whether to eliminate public parking from 2012 Berkeley Way — a time-sensitive step toward building the largest number of permanent affordable housing units for the homeless in Berkeley’s history.
If council members fail to approve the project by the end of the year, however, Berkeley may lose out on receiving $20 million in state funding, Worthington said. This is the first time in his 22 years as a council member that he has seen the chance to provide a significant amount of housing for the homeless.
“In some ways, to me, this is the most important item on the agenda,” Worthington said. “When else can you get an opportunity to house so many homeless people?”
The council will also decide whether to add $17,000 in funding to Dorothy Day House in order to extend operation of the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter.
“Housing is the solution. That will never change,” Zint said in an email. “It’s the only course of action.”