In March 2019, Berkeley’s city manager reported that on any given night, approximately 1,000 people in the city are experiencing homelessness. Since COVID-19 began, it’s spread across the United States and economic strain has heightened, possibly placing more Berkeley residents into housing insecurity.
According to a report from the San Francisco Chronicle, homelessness in Alameda County experienced a 63% increase from 2017 to 2019. Such housing insecurity appears to have only deepened as the pandemic continues to deprive job security from residents. According to California’s Employment Development Department, since November 2020, 52,200 Californians lost their jobs, causing the state’s unemployment to increase by 0.9% and overall unemployment to reach 9% by December.
According to a report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a leading cause for homelessness is a lack of affordable housing and insufficient income. In 2021, the average monthly cost of an apartment in Berkeley is $3,099, according to a report from RentCafé.
According to the People’s Park Instagram account, which is run by the People’s Park Committee, fencing was posted around the park Jan. 19, only to be removed by protestors Jan. 29 and taken to the steps of Sproul Hall. According to the Instagram account, fences were once again posted at the park on the night of Feb. 1, and they were once again removed.
On Feb. 22, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ sent out a campuswide email providing an update on the current state of student housing development, as well as the measures taken by protestors against it. Christ alleged several reasons as to why the development is a “win-win-win-win.”
“Housing for as many as one thousand students. Permanent housing for very low-income and unhoused members of our community. Renewed open space for the safe use and enjoyment of everyone. A commemoration honoring and enshrining the park’s storied past,” Christ said in the email
The email went on to explain that the development will be partially managed by Resources for Community Development, or RCD, which will assist in the construction of a building for “affordable and supportive housing” for current residents of the park. In a “Frequently Asked Questions” report, RCD defined affordable housing as housing that costs 30% or less of the household’s income. The supportive housing development in People’s Park will cost residents within a range of $400 to $1,400 for studio or one-bedroom apartments.
In response to Christ’s email, protesters and organizers at People’s Park released a statement Feb. 23 arguing that the proposed rent was unaffordable for most unhoused and very-low-income members of the community. Their statement claimed that much of Christ’s email was based on disinformation, addressing this with an outline of rebukes for each statement.
In an interview with protestors occupying People’s Park, organizer Dayton Andrews said, “We have to unite more people. More students. More activists in the community. In this fight, we have to be creative. As you see, there’s been this protest camp going on. How long that goes on is a matter of building this plan. But ultimately, we’re trying to unite people, spread knowledge about this struggle and really bring people together. As a space, it should stay and remain as it is.”
The current housing crisis facing People’s Park does not exist in a vacuum, and it impacts much of the community. Outside of a CVS Pharmacy on the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Bancroft Way, two unhoused Berkeley residents who go by Laman and Chester described their experiences with homelessness during the pandemic.
“They just come and take your stuff. If you’re not there, they just move it. They just do away with it, and you have to start all over again. That’s what everybody is going through,” Laman said.
Laman recounted experiences in which his possessions were allegedly removed by city officials and California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, claiming that after his possessions were taken, he was unable to enroll in a program that was supposed to help him reclaim them.
Chester, sitting upright in a tan sleeping bag, recounted similar struggles of losing his possessions during the pandemic. He noted that his possessions are taken “constantly.”
“The most recent thing was yesterday, it was raining and I was really wet. And I lost my stuff while it was raining and I was sleeping,” Chester said.
Janis Mara, Caltrans spokesperson for Alameda County, said in an email that the company conducts cleanouts during the pandemic of any litter and debris from encampments of unhoused residents, along with more restricted removals of encampments due to the pandemic.
Mara added in the email that Caltrans seeks to provide residents of the encampments with available housing and health services through collaborations with cities, counties and local social services.
“Consistent with CDC guidance to prevent community spread of COVID-19, Caltrans is proceeding with encampment removals if there is an immediate safety concern or threat to critical infrastructure. We will continue to work with cities and other partners to move people into safer situations as available,” Mara said in the email.
In the previously mentioned report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in 2012, more than 10 million renters classified as having “extremely low incomes,” although just more than 5 million rental units were made affordable for them, and only 31 out of every 100 units were made available to them. As the city of Berkeley continues to embark on initiatives for affordable housing, current unhoused residents may find themselves under similar circumstances.
With or without the impacts of COVID-19, unhoused Berkeley residents face immediate struggles in their search for housing. If RCD’s development of “supportive housing” in People’s Park is able to continue despite the actions of protestors, the date of when such support will be available is left unclear. As for those who will not receive supportive housing from RCD, housing security continues to be unmet.