Sanctuary cities should not criminalize poverty

Illustration of a dark road during sunset, with an RV driving ahead on the road, by Emily Bi
Emily Bi/File

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Editor’s note: The original illustration attached to this story was removed for internal reasons.

The significant rise in the number of people and families sheltered in recreational vehicles, or RVs, in Berkeley neighborhoods is but one highly visible manifestation of Berkeley’s homelessness crisis. This issue raises a divisive conversation with rhetoric substituting for solutions, causing a failure to search for common ground.

That is why I voted with my colleagues on the Berkeley City Council on Feb. 11 to allow RVs to park in city-owned lots overnight while ensuring that no single neighborhood is impacted by remaining RVs. This resolution is not a panacea — it is only the beginning of Berkeley’s efforts to promote safe and stable RV solutions.

Over 1,000 people in Berkeley are sleeping in their cars, RVs, tents or shelters. This is the cascading consequence of income inequality that results in higher rents, gentrification, displacement and a loss of housing opportunities. After the 2008 financial crisis, banks and limited liability companies, or LLCs, bought up housing across the area as an investment, rather than a place for people to live. Big corporations expanded dramatically without accounting for the housing needs of their host communities, and some owners deliberately kept units vacant to reap massive profits. Today’s RV dweller could have been last year’s apartment tenant or even homeowner, displaced by a lost job, unexpected medical bills or foreclosure on their home.

At the same time, residents and small businesses in areas with large concentrations of RVs parked in their neighborhoods are justifiably concerned about congestion, waste and sanitation problems and the actions of bad actors who are not responsive to their neighbors’ concerns.

However, simply telling RV owners to move elsewhere without a clearly defined place for them to go only results in an endless, expensive and inhumane game of cat and mouse. In July 2018, the council voted to evict over 100 RVs that were located in a Berkeley Marina parking lot, away from other residences and businesses. I voted against this, as the council did not identify any alternative locations or approaches and had not confirmed with the state that the RVs could not remain on tideland property. Predictably, many of these evicted RVs moved into West Berkeley, putting significant stress on these neighborhoods.

Since that time, options presented by city staff entailed evicting all RV dwellers from Berkeley. For example, less than a year later, in February 2019, the city administration sought to ban all overnight RV parking, effectively evicting RVs from the entire city. Once again, no lasting solutions were identified. As a proud supporter of our sanctuary city status, I again voted against the ban along with two of my colleagues.

Thankfully, as a result of the advocacy of many Berkeleyans, the March 2019 ban on overnight parking was amended to defer enforcement until Berkeley developed 24-hour safe parking sites for RVs, as well as a permit process to allow RVs to park on street for up to two weeks.  Preference for these spaces would go to RV owners with ties to the Berkeley community, such as those working in the city or with children in Berkeley schools.

In January, the city proposed to allow RVs to park overnight on select, city-owned parking lots. While this proposal represents a promising start, this program will only provide space for about 25 RVs at night, resolving only a fraction of the existing problem. The city is seeking other sites for additional RV parking, including church and private parking lots.

But what was less clear from this proposal was what would be done about the remaining RVs. I amended the overnight parking proposal so that it does not trigger arbitrary enforcement of the overnight ban throughout Berkeley until additional measures are taken; instead, enforcement will occur in areas with large concentrations of RVs. I wholly support the resolution’s finding that the city should strongly enforce RVs that fail to live up to a “good neighbor” policy and create health, safety and public nuisance problems.

I take very seriously the responsibility of this council to change course and mitigate the damage as best we can by building affordable housing and protecting the most vulnerable. An arbitrary ban on people sleeping in their cars does not solve the crisis of poverty — it only moves it to a different location and makes the lives of the poor significantly more difficult.

There is much more work to be done to end homelessness, but we are chipping away at the problem. We are one month away from breaking ground on the 124 units of affordable housing at Berkeley Way. We are working on the Adeline Corridor Plan to provide affordability alongside density. We are demanding regional solutions, such as for California to supply vacant land for RVs and the East Bay Regional Park District to allow parking at its facilities when they are not in use. Finally, we voted Feb. 11 to open up our city lots to allow 25 RVs to park overnight.

None of these are capable of solving the problem on their own, but they all form parts of the answer. We must all contribute to finding a solution that addresses the root causes and results of poverty, as well as income inequality, without criminalizing the poor.

Kate Harrison is the District 4 Councilperson for the City of Berkeley.