Berkeley residents express dissatisfaction with efforts to combat homelessness

Grace Zhang/Staff

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As a community forum on homelessness drew to a close Monday night, a handful of attendees voiced disappointment about Berkeley City Council’s efforts to address issues affecting the local homeless population.

Councilmember Kate Harrison, who hosted the forum, said she wanted to engage the District 4 community in discussions about the city’s homeless population — which consists of about 1,000 individuals, according to data collected in January 2017 — and to outline the city’s current initiatives related to homelessness.

Topics addressed at the meeting included homeless encampment code of conduct, transitional housing programs and the rising costs of rent.

“There’s a direct correlation between the cost of living here and the inability of people on the margin to keep up with that,” said Peter Radu, secretary of the city’s Homeless Commission, at the meeting.

The city’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department presented data that indicate an 89 percent increase in average rent costs for apartments in Berkeley since 2011, as well as a 22 percent increase in average rent costs since 2016. Radu emphasized that homelessness in Berkeley is “overwhelmingly an economic issue.”

Homeless encampments were a primary source of discussion at the forum. Mayor Jesse Arreguín stated his desire for the city to be able to remove an encampment “at their discretion” if problematic behaviors or public health concerns arise. Arreguín added that the city would post eviction notices 72 hours in advance and allow encampment residents to attempt to fix their behavioral or health-related issues in order to avoid eviction.

Councilmember Sophie Hahn discussed the Pathways Project, which she referred to as a “comprehensive initiative to significantly reduce homelessness.” The project’s primary goals, according to Hahn, are preventing homelessness, increasing access to affordable housing and creating a path to permanent housing.

“We want to harness all our services, and when people engage with them, they’re on the path to being housed,” Hahn said. “That differs from a more fragmented system. … We’re trying to put the pieces of that pathway in place.”

Despite the city’s proclaimed efforts at the forum to combat homelessness, some attendees interrupted city officials to express their concerns about a lack of concrete action and a tendency to criminalize the homeless population.

Berkeley resident and homeless activist Guy “Mike” Lee, who attended the meeting, said, “There’s only a handful of us that actually stand up and fight these people.” Lee said he was upset by the city’s failure to address the management of homeless encampments and its focus on prohibited conduct rather than acceptable behavior among encampment residents.

“(The council members are) all good people,” said Carol Denney, a Berkeley resident who interrupted the forum. “They think they’re doing the right thing. But criminalization is not just ineffective. It’s expensive and it’s immoral. And they know better.”

Danielle Kaye is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.