‘Trying to survive’: Community members react to People’s Park development plans

Photo of People's Park
Ethan Lejano/Staff
Chancellor Carol Christ alleged in a campuswide email Monday that People's Park is an area consisting of often violent criminal activity, which is often focused toward the park's visitors. In response to the email, the Suitcase Clinic expressed concerns surrounding the potential for crime to worsen as displaced houseless people are subjected to harassment outside of the park.

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Dozens of tents, hammocks strewn up between redwoods, park regulars and student activists currently encompass the landscape of People’s Park. In the midst of this is an ongoing controversy over UC Berkeley’s plan to develop the area, resulting in protests and retaliation.

Resistance to campus’ plans to build student housing and supportive housing for very low income and formerly houseless residents have come from students — who have been occupying the park for two weeks — park residents and community members.

One park resident is Aimee Ziegler, a former campus student who has camped periodically at People’s Park for years. For Ziegler, a day at the park includes feeding their cat, protecting things from being stolen or ruined, cleaning, running errands and interacting with the community.

In a campuswide email Monday, campus Chancellor Carol Christ said the overnight camping ban has been enforced at People’s Park for 50 years — a point contested by students and community members, including Ziegler. They noted that they were part of an encampment at the park before the pandemic.

According to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, UCPD typically directs park users away from the area at 10 p.m. daily. Enforcement of the camping ban, however, was suspended during the pandemic, according to the campuswide email.

“They used to be really vigilant about kicking people out of the physical park, but people were sleeping all the way around the corners of the park on the sidewalk,” said People’s Park Committee member Lisa Teague. “We’re super grateful that they have been, since the pandemic, allowing people to shelter in place in the park.”

The email alleged that People’s Park is a “locus of extensive criminal activity, much of it violent, much of it targeting those who frequent the park.” According to Mogulof, UCPD has responded to more than 5,000 calls and incidents at the park over the past five years.

In response to Christ’s email, the Suitcase Clinic said in a statement destroying the park will not solve crime in Berkeley and may exacerbate it if residents move to sidewalks and fall victim to “pedestrian and police harassment.”

During a meeting with the ASUC and Suitcase Clinic on Tuesday, campus Vice Chancellor Marc Fisher said People’s Park was chosen for development because other sites required some amount of demolition.

“Every one of those sites has a complication,” Fisher said during the meeting. “This one is not easy by any means, but it has more green field than any other site.”

Fisher added that a challenge for next year will be making as many provisions as possible to house those who rely on the park during construction due to hazardous conditions that will impact those who stay on the side of the park.

Another point of contention in the opposition against development plans is who the supportive housing building will serve. According to the campus Capital Strategies website, a nonprofit partner will develop and manage 75 to 125 apartments for very low income and formerly houseless residents.

The sources of funding for the building will determine who gets priority with housing, according to Ari Neulight, the campus homeless outreach coordinator for People’s Park. Funding sources may include the city of Berkeley and Alameda County.

“I definitely agree that affordable housing is needed very badly,” said June Nelson, a campus graduate who has been at the park every day for two weeks. “It’s not really a valid argument to claim that they’re going to be mitigating the harm that they’re doing displacing the people here by building affordable units.”

Numerous advocates noted that the development would displace the resources and sense of community at the park. According to Neulight, People’s Park has more support than other areas in the city.

Neulight said at the meeting it is difficult to pinpoint a place where houseless people will create a community when the park is developed, as it needs to naturally emerge and be fostered.

Echoing Neulight’s sentiments, Teague said the park’s resources were of great help to them.

Ziegler said houseless individuals at the park have access to medical supplies and quality food and are able to work with Neulight. They added that they made a “really good friend” at Food Not Bombs, an organization that comes to the park almost every day and serves hot meals.

Ziegler also noted that the green space of the park provides residents with a mental health benefit.

“There’s minimal traffic,” Ziegler said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever slept on the sidewalk, but it’s really hard to have a stable mentality when you’re constantly hearing cars.”

Despite the fact that the park does not have one “coherent community,” many of its residents have experienced trauma and need the support and interaction the park provides, Ziegler noted.

People generally interact with those they know, and although it is usually peaceful, there are occasional conflicts with police or between groups, according to Ziegler.

“We’re all basically just trying to survive,” Ziegler said. “There’s possibilities for little communities and for mutual aid and for people to help each other and self-regulate. There’s a reason that people have congressed here.”

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.