Berkeley homelessness still problem 1 year after failure of Measure S

Matt Lee/File
Students protest Measure S on Nov. 2, 2012, at a rally on Upper Sproul Plaza. After the failure of the measure, which would have prohibited sitting on commercial sidewalks, Berkeley City Council has looked into alternative programs to decrease homelessness.

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Slightly more than a year after the failure of Measure S, a controversial ballot initiative that would have prohibited sitting on commercial sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., many advocates and opponents of the measure can agree on at least one thing: Addressing Berkeley’s homeless situation is a slow process.

Measure S failed narrowly in 2012 with 52.5 percent opposing the measure. Since then, many who supported the proposal still say that they want change when it comes to the issues of people sitting on the sidewalks and homelessness in Berkeley.

Over the months, Craig Becker, owner of Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue and a member of the Berkeley Homeless Commission, said he believes the issue of people sitting on sidewalks has actually gotten worse after the failure of Measure S.

“Unfortunately, when you have something that’s publicized broadly, like Measure S, then you’re going to attract more people who want to sit on the sidewalk, because most cities don’t allow that,” Becker said. “A fair number were not homeless at all … they commute to the sidewalks on Telegraph.”

In 2010, San Francisco passed a similar ordinance that restricts sitting and lying on public sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Many still reside on the sidewalks on the block of Becker’s restaurant, an issue that directly affects him because this deters customers from entering not only his restaurant but also other businesses, he said.

“Sidewalks are meant to be used by everyone,” Becker said. “They’re not meant to be a campground.”

But Brandon Mercer, a Berkeley resident who has lived on and off the streets for 14 years, said there are limited alternatives to sitting on the sidewalks for homeless people in Berkeley because, for him, shelters often do not provide for what happens once people leave.

“Sitting on the sidewalk is more damaging to us than anything else,” Mercer said. “Let alone throwing a measure at us saying we can’t sit (on the sidewalk) at all. It’s kind of barbaric.”

In an effort to address the continuing problem of homelessness in Berkeley, the City Council voted in January to establish the Compassionate Sidewalks Plan, which was introduced by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. The plan includes establishing subcommittees on issues such as mental health services, housing and more. So far, the group has met twice, and Arreguin said he plans to schedule another meeting for mid-December.

Elaine de Coligny, executive director of the nonprofit organization EveryOne Home, attended the first meeting in August. As part of the homeless task force subcommittee, she said they discussed strategies to concentrate resources on the “most vulnerable,” referring to those who are medically vulnerable and who have been on the streets the longest.

According to a recent survey by EveryOne Home, the number of unsheltered homeless living with severe mental illness in Alameda County has increased by 35 percent over the past two years.

“Our hope is that this targeting of resources will mean the people of highest need will get access to these housing resources,” de Coligny said.

Although business owners at the meetings have expressed concerns about the behavior of people on sidewalks, Arreguin said he wants to focus on providing resources for the homeless and proposing ideas for new programs right now.

“What’s more important, in my opinion, is focusing on how we can get people off the streets, to get people out of the position where they have to panhandle on the streets,” Arreguin said.

But Becker, who has attended the meetings, said he is doubtful of whether the plan will actually make a difference. He said that if the plan is to be effective, it has to include creating standards to control behaviors of people on sidewalks.

Arreguin said he intends to reach out to the homeless as part of the plan, directly and indirectly through shelter workers, to include their voice in the discussion on what to do next. He hopes the group will come up with a specific proposal to address homelessness and present it to Berkeley City Council by the end of next year.

Tara Hurley covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tcchurley.