Behavior at council meeting prevented positive discussion over Civil Sidewalks Ordinance

Kira Walker/Staff

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At the July 10 City Council meeting, after more than two hours of public testimony, a group of protesters, actively egged on by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, began shouting and singing so that no further discussion could take place. The remaining public speakers and council members were shouted down. It was impossible for council members to discuss the serious policy issues surrounding the measure or even explain their reasons for voting as they did. The bullying behavior by Councilmember Worthington and others denied everyone at the council — both those in favor of the measure and those in opposition — the chance for a rational debate.

I encourage those interested to watch the video stream of the meeting on the city’s website to understand my outrage at the actions of those involved and my determination not to allow them to make a mockery of the democratic process.

If the debate had occurred, council members and citizens would have been asked to consider that Berkeley is a city that has worked for decades to help those in need and give them a second chance. We spend almost $3 million annually to help people living in our homeless shelters and transitional housing or sleeping in cars, doorways or parks. We are committed to continuing this funding, even in difficult economic times.

Our best citywide estimate of homeless persons comes from data compiled by Alameda County every two years. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of homeless in Alameda County remained at about 4,000 individuals. The number of homeless people in Berkeley was 680 in 2009, and we believe that number would be similar if persons were counted today.

A current map of homeless services, available from my office, lists 42 sites in the city where beds, emergency meals, restrooms and medical services are provided, most on a daily basis. If people passing through our community or living on our streets need help with food, shelter or problems with substance abuse, our outreach workers through the Downtown Business Association Ambassadors Program, Berkeley Police Department, faith-based and community groups, food banks and medical facilities are there for them.

As mayor, I hear frequently that sidewalk encampments cause residents and visitors to avoid some commercial areas. When one of my good friends, a woman who has traveled the world as a solo traveler, told me she won’t go to the movies in Downtown Berkeley because of groups of young adults with dogs camped on the sidewalk, I knew our local businesses were right to be concerned. Our sidewalks and commercial areas are for us all.

Reduced economic activity in commercial areas results in lower sales taxes and fewer city resources available to help people in need. The proposed ordinance is modeled on those in Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, Palo Alto and San Francisco — other communities known for liberal politics and generous services. We seek to build on what has worked for them and learn from their mistakes.

The proposal on the ballot for your consideration in November would limit sitting on sidewalks only in commercial districts at certain hours of the day and would require a warning before citation. This restriction does not apply to day laborers in traditional spots known as pickup points for them.

If passed by Berkeley voters, the ordinance will take effect July 1, 2013, giving 10 months for outreach to people on the street, service providers, merchants and community agencies.

When homeless people take up residence in commercial corridors where services for them are not generally available, it perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Nonprofit organizations operate the city’s emergency shelters and transitional housing. There are 135 beds year-round in our emergency shelters, an extra 70 emergency shelter beds during winter, 50 winter emergency beds at the Dorothy Day Emergency Shelter and another 163 transitional housing beds with services to help people get back on their feet. For individuals and families that cannot be accommodated in the shelter programs, the city spends $34,888 annually on short-term motel stays. Last winter, we provided 393 nights in hotels for 49 families and 20 individuals. We also support a number of daytime drop-in centers for meals, showers and services: BOSS, the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center, the Berkeley Drop-in Center, the Berkeley Food and Housing Program and the Berkeley Women’s Resource Center.

Living on the street is not pleasant, and Berkeley is committed to helping those in need. Please contact my office if you need additional information about social services funded by the city and other organizations or about the proposed Civil Sidewalks Ordinance. I wish the council had had the opportunity to discuss these matters last week. We didn’t, but we are committed to move forward and find solutions that work for all our people.

Tom Bates is the mayor of Berkeley.