The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted life as we know it. Our community has faced unprecedented challenges, but for our unhoused neighbors, the pandemic has further amplified already-existing issues. People experiencing homelessness in Berkeley continue to be affected by water insecurity and encampment sweeps.
Although water insecurity burdened individuals experiencing homelessness prior to the pandemic, many could rely on public libraries and college campuses for drinking and hand-washing water. This is no longer the case. Being deprived of basic sanitation during a pandemic is cruel, especially when unhoused individuals are frequently unable to social distance or receive reliable health care. Inadequate access to sanitation resources has devastated unhoused communities before, notably in San Diego where the city’s neglect led to a deadly two-year hepatitis A outbreak. The city of Berkeley must take greater measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among an already extremely vulnerable community.
The city’s response to this unmet need has been staggeringly inadequate. Throughout the period of the pandemic, the city has relied on community organizations such as Consider the Homeless! to distribute plastic water bottles. Water must be easily obtainable at all hours of the day, every day of the week, and plastic water bottles are not enough. After tremendous community pressure, the city agreed to fund Berkeley Free Clinic’s, or BFC’s, water tank installation program. Because of the funding, it has been able to install tanks of clean drinking water equipped with soap and hand sanitizer at residential vehicle parks and encampments in the city. However, according to Barbara Brust from Consider the Homeless!, outreach groups have limited resources to continue purchasing water bottles, and BFC’s tanks will only survive as long as the funding exists.
Further compromising the ability of unhoused folks to survive the pandemic, the city has increased its policing despite public health advice to allow people who are unhoused to shelter in place. On Sept. 15, 2020, Berkeley City Council passed an item titled, “Preserving Our Children’s Recreation Areas,” which directed heightened enforcement of nighttime park ordinances and gave police the authority to remove those staying in the park after dark.
While the City Council was quick to cite “unsanitary conditions” such as the presence of feces and needles in Willard Park as a reason for the displacement of people living there, it seemingly did not consider that the nearest 24-hour access bathroom is a 44-minute walk (2.3 miles) to Strawberry Creek Park. The nearby portable toilets that do exist near People’s Park are rarely well-stocked.
If the city had communicated with outreach groups before taking drastic measures, it may have been able to address the complaints of locals without having to remove those living in Willard Park. Displacing people and driving them into the streets are actions that not only fail to address the root cause of the issue but also exacerbate the vulnerability of those displaced. Moreover, the language used to justify the passage of this item simply reestablishes and appeals to long-standing prejudices that paint unhoused people in derogatory terms in order to control a vulnerable community.
In the midst of a national reconceptualization of policing that calls for diverting funding away from the police and toward supporting the revitalization of marginalized communities, people who are unhoused continue to have negative interactions with the police in Berkeley. Within the last week, police officers reportedly entered the encampment on Eighth and Harrison streets to supposedly aid with cleanup. In the process of this cleanup, Ian Morales from Where Do We Go? Berkeley has reportedly witnessed police officers remove and demolish the tents of residents while enforcing an inhumane rule that prohibits individuals from occupying more than 9 square feet. The physical distancing guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that individuals have a minimum of 12 feet by 12 feet of space to occupy in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, UC Berkeley School of Public Health students and faculty have recommended halting the confiscation of tents and other belongings at encampments, especially as tents are the only way that people experiencing homelessness can self-isolate.
The confiscation of items from people who are unhoused, most of whom are people of color, is illegal and deplorable. Furthermore, according to Morales, it unnecessarily strains their resources as outreach groups have to resupply residents with tents.
Both the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley students have an ethical responsibility to stand up for unhoused communities. Although students live in Berkeley for only a few years, we contribute to the displacement of people by driving up housing prices. Students can provide support by donating to outreach groups, such as Consider the Homeless! or the Suitcase Clinic, or by lobbying the City Council.
The actions being taken by the city are not solutions, and the problems faced by people experiencing homelessness can and must be addressed. By continuing to fund outreach groups to tackle water insecurity and by working with advocates to resolve issues, we can find collaborative solutions that benefit all stakeholders. We call on Berkeley City Council to strengthen communications with outreach and advocacy groups to ensure that policy decisions are informed by the voices of the city’s most vulnerable communities.
Sanah Basrai, Erica Gillespie, Sakina Bambot and Vien Yen Ho Pham are undergraduate students at UC Berkeley and members of the Suitcase Clinic’s advocacy team.