Update 11/29/15: This article has been updated to reflect new information from First They Came for the Homeless organizer Mike Zint.
Despite a dispersal order issued last week by the city of Berkeley to members of the homeless community who have occupied the front lawn of Old City Hall for two weeks, the so-called tent city held a general assembly meeting Sunday night to establish a governing structure and rules of the occupation, with plans to stay through 2016.
According to the order, given by Berkeley’s Neighborhood Services department, the occupation constitutes a penal code violation: Lodging on public property without the permission of the owner is illegal. But as of Sunday night, more than 20 tents were set up, in defiance of the order, with plans to stay put.
“The longer we’re out here, the more functional we’re going to become,” said Moon, a homeless individual who has been occupying the area on and off since the beginning. “I want to see this grow. I want to see this become something.”
The occupation began Nov. 16 as a protest of amendments to city ordinances to regulate street behavior that were proposed at the Nov. 17 Berkeley City Council meeting. The amendments, which included a ban on public urination and lying inside planter beds, were approved during a first reading at the Nov. 17 meeting and will see a second reading at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Occupiers plan to march to the council meeting, which will be held at Longfellow Middle School, to protest the amendments.
While the amendments were proposed by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Linda Maio, Laurie Capitelli and Lori Droste as an effort to improve sidewalk conditions and have been supported by many small business owners, they have come under fire from community members and homeless individuals who say they are part of a growing effort to criminalize homelessness in the city.
Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White previously said BPD had no immediate plans to intervene in the occupation but had been intermittently monitoring the area.
Mike Zint, an organizer with advocacy group First They Came for the Homeless, said the occupiers plan to continue their encampment at least until Jan. 1. Zint also expressed hope that the city would give them a piece of property to settle on, in exchange for ending the occupation at both Old City Hall and the Downtown Berkeley Post Office — which began more than a year ago.
According to Zint, the occupation is housing up to 70 members of the city’s homeless population — totaling about 1,000 — with its own recycling service and form of consensus-based government.
“What we’ve done in 14 days is handle 7 percent of the problem at the total cost to the city of two trash pickups,” Zint said.
Andres Cameron, 36, who was at the occupation Wednesday night, said the public notice lacked a strict time frame for enforcement, adding that it would be “bad press” for the police to evict the homeless during the holidays. Members of the homeless community, though, have no plans to leave anytime soon.