Councilmember Jesse Arreguin hosts community meeting Saturday to discuss city homelessness

Karen Chow/Staff

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Councilmember Jesse Arreguin and several other city employees hosted a community meeting Saturday to discuss the issue of homelessness in Berkeley.

The meeting was open to the public and centered around a discussion of interactions between Berkeley residents and the homeless population, as well as potential support services. The meeting included input from about 30 community members, Arreguin, several city employees and a Berkeley Police Department lieutenant.

“I think it’s important to hear from residents around some of the problems they’ve been experiencing around street behavior,” Arreguin said. “I thought there were a lot of constructive ideas that people put forth around ways that Berkeley can generate additional funding for services.”

Eve Ahmed, a social worker for the city who specializes in homeless outreach, said the services Berkeley provides for the homeless have dried up because of lack of funding. Currently, Ahmed is the city’s only salaried homeless outreach worker.

She also said there are a couple different “types” of homeless living in Berkeley, including the chronic homeless and the transitional, or transient youth, homeless. The transient youth choose to travel and prefer to call themselves “houseless,” according to Ahmed.

“Many of the campers we encounter these days are not interested in housing — they are not interested in the services we provide,” said Shallon Allen, an associate management analyst at the city manager’s office.

Allen said many transient youth are uninterested because of various reasons — the shelters don’t allow dogs, they may have bedbugs or they cannot make the shelter’s curfew. But some homeless individuals who seek housing often find themselves turned away from shelters when the beds are filled. Overcrowding of shelter beds is particularly a problem during the winter months, according to Ahmed.

Community members voiced individual complaints and raised possible solutions for the ongoing funding problem in the city of Berkeley.

Allen described the process of breaking up large encampments of homeless persons such as the one outside the Old City Hall, which was cleared out Dec. 4. During the disbandment, three campers were arrested, and two came back the next morning, and were arrested again.

Berkeley Police Department Lt. Andrew Rateaver discussed police policy in dealing with encampments. He said at the meeting that the police “focus on behavior” and have specially trained officers to deal with those believed to be mentally ill. Eventually, he said, all officers will be trained in intervention techniques.

“We’re compassionate, we take our time,” Rateaver said. “But when we take the time to deal with that, it pulls us away from our original mission.”

Arreguin attributed the rise in Berkeley’s homeless population to a combination of transient youth traveling through and rising housing costs forcing people onto the streets. He also said there was a sizeable number of homeless youth in the Berkeley Unified School District.

“The overriding thing that I heard today was that we need a comprehensive plan,” Arreguin said. “We need to think about how we’re going to pull all these ideas together in a comprehensive approach.”

Contact Anderson Lanham at [email protected].