Advocacy group demands action for homeless as winter approaches

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Chilled winds blow, rain pours and the homeless residents sleeping on the streets of Berkeley continue to bear the brunt of the approaching winter.

The city’s already precarious homeless situation was swept into further crisis after the emergency winter shelter at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church was damaged in September by a fire. Though the city has made recent efforts to address the lack of an emergency winter shelter in the form of an ad hoc committee, a self-advocacy group — First They Came for the Homeless — released a list of demands Monday for Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguin and his administration.

The group called on the city to impose a moratorium on police raids of homeless tent villages. In addition, they demanded the city designate a location for a sanctioned tent village and renew the emergency shelter declaration and use it to provide meaningful housing alternatives.

“We are working on locating some safe places for people to be, and ideally out of the weather,” said ad hoc committee member and Councilmember Linda Maio in an email.

Homeless activist Mike Zint, a leader of the group, was arrested last week in the disbandment of an encampment near Old City Hall. As a result of the disbandment, the encampment was moved to the corner of Milvia and Center streets.

The final demand listed was to change the wording of a city ordinance that passed last year that restricts belongings on sidewalks to 2 square feet during the day.

“The 2 ft sq designation is likely to be revisited as it is too small,” Maio, who co-sponsored the ordinance, said in the email.

Many homeless people living in encampments are sick from exposure to the rain and wind, according to Guy “Mike” Lee, former mayoral candidate and homeless advocate. Living under tarps rather than tents, members of the homeless camps have also had their homes regularly dispersed by police, Lee said.

“Everything else they want to talk about is fine and dandy, but it starts with the moratorium. They’ve got to stop raiding us,” Lee said. “Just allow homeless people to take care of themselves.”

According to Sally Hindman, executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks — an arts job training program focused on empowering homeless and low-income youth — the hope is for homeless activists and homeless people to work together with the city to reach and surpass the standards other local communities, such as Oakland, have managed to meet.

The city’s ad hoc committee is set to approach the crisis with a four-stage plan ranging from immediate solutions to take place within 30 days to long-term ones to be enacted within the next 12 months. They intend to soon identify a replacement emergency homeless shelter and are attempting to find regional partners for an outdoor sanctioned homeless camp. In the future, the creation of tiny house communities may be considered.

“All the great religions of the world call on us in one form or another to love our neighbor as ourselves,” Hindman said. “The homeless community, in one way or another, is our neighbor.”

Contact Edward Booth at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Edward_E_Booth.