Recent numbers on homelessness don’t match city’s rhetoric

CITY ISSUES: Alleviating homeless displacement necessitates creative thinking from city

Illustration of homeless person in front of encampment
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

According to this year’s point-in-time count, homelessness in Berkeley has seen a whopping 14 percent increase over the last two years, with a staggering 43 percent increase throughout Alameda County.

In an interview with The Daily Californian’s editorial board, Mayor Jesse Arreguín affirmed that alleviating homelessness has been at the top of his list during his term in office, which is true: The city has put forth a variety of initiatives dedicated to assisting the homeless population. The Pathways STAIR Navigation Center, which opened in June 2018, helped many find permanent housing within months of its inauguration, and the city is planning to build additional supportive housing for homeless individuals using funds from state Propositions 1 and 2.

But certain approaches seem contradictory. Individuals living in recreational vehicles, or RVs, down by the Berkeley Marina were evicted by the city in May 2018. The sidewalk ordinance, passed by the Berkeley City Council in October 2018, limited the time that homeless individuals could have their tents up, as well as how much sidewalk space they were allowed at a time. The city talks a big game about helping homeless individuals, but the results just don’t match that rhetoric.

Just this past week, the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, cleared a homeless encampment at the Interstate 80 and University Avenue intersection. According to Mayor Arreguín, Caltrans did not coordinate with the city of Berkeley about the encampment clearing, which is disappointing, but the city also has a part in keeping those lines of communication open with state agencies.

Obvious communication issues aside, the city has failed to step up and do its part in protecting homeless encampments, even though encampment residents have actively lobbied for city support in the past. Mayor Arreguín mentioned that the city disbands encampments when they pose a “risk of health and safety” and that occupants of disbanded encampments are given vouchers to city shelters; yet if the issue is a health hazard, shouldn’t more resources be allocated toward preventive health care efforts rather than displacement?

Given that homelessness indices are rising alarmingly fast, the city is planning to request that the governor issue a state of emergency. It’s not a bad idea — it would enable the state to issue additional funds that could go solely toward supporting homelessness initiatives — but that shouldn’t be the only means of addressing the problem.

Investing in preventative measures, such as increasing the amount of health care services given to encampment residents, would decrease the need to disband encampments. Focusing efforts on establishing guaranteed spaces for homeless living, rather than removing people from their homes, is a concrete step toward supporting the homeless community. Mayor Arreguín identified both ideas as points of focus moving forward — here’s to hoping he’ll follow through.

The point-in-time numbers definitively prove that sticking to the rules and going through the motions isn’t cutting it. It’s time for the city to start thinking outside the box when it comes to addressing the homelessness crisis.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the opinion editor.