With the sunset’s glow illuminating Downtown Berkeley, a Zen Buddhist teacher, a Muslim teacher, three rabbis, a friar and a pastor — along with other community members — gathered to break bread and shed light on the current political atmosphere surrounding homelessness in the city.
They gathered Thursday in a sleep-out hosted by an interfaith coalition representing more than 40 Berkeley congregations to denounce a City Council proposal to ban specific street behavior, a move the coalition said would criminalize homelessness.
About a dozen of the participants, including members of the interfaith group and homeless people, slept in the Downtown Berkeley BART plaza until early Friday morning. Although the event aimed to criticize the City Council initiative, its participants said that major issues with homelessness also include the lack of adequate government assistance and empathy for those who need help.
The proposed ordinances include prohibiting panhandling within 10 feet of a parking pay station and forbidding sleeping pads on sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. They also include looking into extending hours beyond winter for youth shelters and the availability of public restrooms.
The issue has been referred to the city manager, who is charged with drafting the ordinance language. After this process, City Council will decide whether to pass the ordinances.
David Teague, also known as Ninja Kitty, has been homeless since he was 13 and said the resulting costs from regulating the new restrictions would be more expensive than solutions such as housing the homeless.
City staff analysis, though, predicted that the city would be able to improve maintenance efficiency with the proposal and increase patronage in commercial areas.
There have been countless times, Teague said, that he could have gotten off the streets but was unable to save enough money, even while working a full-time job, because it was a “misdemeanor for (him) to sleep.” He said he has been on a waiting list for Section 8 housing for the last two years.
“It’s like they expect me to vanish when I’m waiting for housing,” Teague said.
John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, supports passing ordinances to ban certain behaviors — such as public defecation and urination — because he said dealing with them has become increasingly difficult in the last year, as they have made Downtown less welcoming and prompted some community members and business owners to make complaints.
“(In) situations in which behaviors are aggressive, we need to provide balance in the community and make it welcoming for everyone,” Caner said.
Dan McMullan, a Human Welfare and Community Action commissioner, became homeless after a motorcycle accident resulted in multiple injuries, including the loss of his leg. He said the erratic behavior often complained about is the result of insufficient help for mentally disabled homeless persons.
According to Bob Offer-Westort, who helped coordinate the effort against Measure S — an initiative that aimed to prohibit sitting on commercial sidewalks during business hours, which failed to pass in 2012 — the shelter deficiency in Alameda County needs to be addressed.
Offer-Westort said that many people get turned away from shelters and that homeless youth are often pushed into adult shelters, which can be unwelcoming.
The city, however, has taken recent steps to provide homeless services, such as moving forward with a venture between the Downtown Berkeley Association and the city to install donation boxes on city poles to raise money for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project.
According to the Berkeley website, the city has six drop-in centers, six emergency shelters, four permanent housing support services and two transitional-housing programs that offer help to the homeless.
Upon graduating from law school, Kim Nemirow became homeless as a result of a disability. Nemirow said fixing the public mental health support system is fundamental to mitigating the issues with homelessness. Echoing Nemirow’s concerns, McMullan said opening a new shelter specifically for disabled homeless people would be “an immense step up.”
“(Homeless people) don’t want you to be an advocate but a relative — someone to take care of them and stay on them like family,” McMullan said.