A Futile and Brutal Act: Berkeley’s Anti-Homeless Laws

“Berkeley continues to outlaw homeless people in the face of overwhelming statements from the federal government and from nearly every university school of health and law school that says that criminalizing the poor is a futile and brutal act.” — Max Anderson, Berkeley City Council
Homeless people have set up tents at City Hall and have created an occupation to make visible the injustices and hardships faced by homeless people. Lydia Gans photo

Homeless people have set up tents at City Hall and have created an occupation to make visible the injustices and hardships faced by homeless people. Lydia Gans photo

 

by Terry Messman

It was the best of Berkeley and the worst of Berkeley. On one side was the Downtown Berkeley Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and a six-member voting bloc of the City Council acting as a political machine to rubber-stamp the directives of big business.

On the other side was the conscience of Berkeley, in the form of hundreds of concerned citizens who lifted up their voices in defense of human rights, international law, humane treatment, justice and compassion — all to no avail.

At a crucial moment when the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have warned U.S. cities to stop passing anti-homeless laws, and two United Nations agencies have officially declared that U.S. cities are violating international law by criminalizing homeless people, Mayor Tom Bates and the Berkeley City Council voted 6 to 3 in favor of draconian new measures to persecute homeless people.

Yet, it was the best of Berkeley because so many people cared so deeply about the city’s homeless residents and offered powerful and electrifying calls for compassion and social justice.

Many people present at the council meeting on November 17 said afterwards that they were so moved by the inspiring statements of so many who waited for hours in the council chambers to testify, that it felt like a moral victory for human rights despite the passage of the anti-homeless laws.

Berkeley activist Sally Hindman said it felt like “cognitive dissonance” when immediately after the council listened to several hours of compelling testimony about human rights, the council majority ignored every one of the eloquent voices raised in defense of the city’s poorest residents, and voted to pass the draconian laws.

The City Council’s first vote on November 17 was followed by their second, and final, vote in favor of the anti-homeless measures on December 1.

The new law severely limits the amount of sidewalk space where people can have their belongings to two square feet, and bans lying on the rims of planters. People with shopping carts will be forced to move all their possessions every hour. The law also bans urinating and defecating in public even though many called that provision a misleading smoke screen aimed at maligning the poor, since it is already illegal.

At one point, Attorney Osha Neumann walked up to the microphone and told the City Council that “the fix is in,” then deliberately turned his back on the council and directly addressed the large number of homeless advocates who packed the council chambers. He said that despite the majority vote for the anti-homeless laws, people had succeeded in joining together in a struggle that would continue to defend the rights of homeless people.

Max Anderson’s Powerful Indictment

In an evening packed with inspiring speakers, the most eloquent testimony by far came at the very end, when Berkeley City Councilmember Max Anderson called forth memories of an earlier struggle for civil rights in our nation’s history.

Anderson, an African-American councilmember representing District 3, was one of three dissenting votes to the anti-homeless measures, along with Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin.

Anderson delivered the most magnificent statement of the evening, a powerful moral indictment of the Berkeley City Council for following in the segregationist footsteps of Mississippi and Alabama.

He put Berkeley’s efforts to punish the poor in historical perspective, reminding everyone that the council has constantly attempted to criminalize homelessness for more than 20 years, going back to Measures N and O in 1994.

Anderson said, “Berkeley continues trying to outlaw homeless people in the face of overwhelming statements from the federal government and from nearly every university school of health and law school that says that criminalizing the poor is a futile and brutal act.”

He responded directly to a few Berkeley residents who earlier in the evening had tried to stir up fear against homeless people in the city. “The poor have a hell of a lot more to fear from the affluent than the other way around,” Anderson said. “We have heard and seen what has happened when the rights of people are systematically ignored.”

Anderson then reminded Mayor Bates and the City Council that they had heard testimony from public health nurses about the “terrible health problems suffered by people on the streets” — people who are on medications for congestive heart failure, people who have kidney failure, or diabetes, or a host of other diseases.

Anderson said that Berkeley officials have tried to criminalize basic things that all human beings must do, including sitting and lying, sleeping and urinating.

“Now we’re criminalizing people sitting in a two-by-two-foot space that they are condemned to have all of their possessions in,” Anderson said. “This is so draconian and so backward and so reactionary that you’d think this is coming out of Alabama or Mississippi.”

A boot on the necks of the poor

Over the years, I have heard many, many voices speaking out in defense of homeless people, but Anderson touched on something very profound in describing the human damage caused by the new anti-homeless law. He somehow captured the deeper dimension of the appalling injustice being done to the poorest of the poor by Mayor Bates and the City Council.

Perhaps it was his shattering image of a boot on the necks of the poor.

“To continue to pile on and put a boot on the neck of people when they need a helping hand is so beyond the pale of what we stand for in this city,” Anderson said.

“And to have this thing be driven by wealthy, big-money interests that apparently hold sway over six members of this council at any given time without regard to any kind of moral or ethical standards — even ignoring HUD guidelines! We don’t mind losing money for affordable housing in this city. We don’t want to build housing that is affordable for poor people. We throw our money on high-rise monstrosities that house only the richest among us.”

In light of Anderson’s reminder to his colleagues about the life-threatening health problems suffered by people on the streets, it almost defies belief that they ignored the testimony of nurses and service providers about the especially harmful impact their new laws would have on people with serious medical conditions.

Nurse Calls Law Cruel and Inhumane

Olivia de Bree, a nurse practitioner in Berkeley, described the health problems of homeless people she has worked with, and told the council, “This legislation is very inhumane.”

She told the City Council that there are higher rates of premature mortality among homeless people in Berkeley.

National studies have repeatedly shown that people living on the streets have far shorter life spans than the general populace and often die prematurely due to serious illnesses and disease, and exposure to the elements and to violence.

De Bree testified that homeless people have higher rates of strokes, emphysema, hepatitis and liver cancer. People from the ages of 45 to 64 who are homeless have 4.5 times higher rates of age-adjusted mortality.

Cancer and heart disease are two of the most common reasons why they are dying, she said, and that led her to a scathing denunciation of the council’s anti-homeless law that would require people to move their carts every hour and to have only two square feet for their belongings.

“When people have heart disease, you’re going to ask them to move their shopping carts every hour,” de Bree said. “Who are you kidding? You are cruel! You are asking them to keep their possessions in a two-by-two-feet area and carry the rest? Are you insane?”

The nurse reminded the council that people with serious illnesses who live on the street have far worse outcomes because of the bad living conditions they face.

“We’re not talking about people who have controlled but people with uncontrolled diabetes, with amputations, ulcerations, and neuropathy,” de Bree said.

Kicking People When They Are Down

“These are not people you should be kicking when they are down and that is exactly what you are doing, and it’s incredibly inhumane. When you see a homeless person on the sidewalk and imagine that they are 20 to 30 years older because they are very sick, that is who you are hurting.”

She also warned that these anti-homeless measures could jeopardize HUD funding for affordable housing, and questioned why the City Council would knowingly take steps to lose funding for affordable housing. The loss of housing is a public health crisis, and she warned that it also “deters Black people from living and working in this city.”

De Bree pointed to a recent survey that shows that 49 percent of homeless people in Berkeley are African Americans.

“African Americans are disproportionately represented among the homeless,” she said. “In South Berkeley, we see institutional racism.” The new anti-homeless laws would disproportionately affect African-Americans who are homeless and “will only make their lives harder.”

Homeless advocates begin an all-night vigil in front of old City Hall in protest of the Berkeley City Council’s anti-homeless laws. Photo credit: Kevin Cheung, Daily Cal

Homeless advocates begin an all-night vigil in front of old City Hall in protest of the Berkeley City Council’s anti-homeless laws. Photo credit: Kevin Cheung, Daily Californian

 

Reversing the civil rights era

Daniel McMullan also spoke out against the discriminatory aspects of the anti-homeless measure. McMullan, a City Commissioner on Berkeley’s Human Welfare Commission, reminded City Councilmember Linda Maio, one of the key authors of the measure, that the council’s vote for anti-homeless laws on Dec. 1, 2015, came on the 60th anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and helped to spark the civil rights movement.

McMullan said that the Berkeley City Council has been reversing the spirit of the civil rights movement with its “lazy, racist, anti-human” laws that stem from a “beat-up-on-the-victim ideology.”

At the council hearing, McMullan charged that the proponents of the anti-homeless laws were depicting “homeless people as filthy animals,” and denounced the City Council for enacting the laws at “the whims of business and development outsiders” and “at the expense of the people that live here.”

McMullan reminded the council that Berkeley voters had voted down a similar anti-homeless initiative, Measure S, in the 2012 election. “The voters said by voting down Measure S that we don’t want these kinds of anti-homeless laws in Berkeley,” he said. By passing these laws despite the will of the voters, McMullan said, the City Council is sending a “big love letter to developers telling them they will spit in the face of the voters for you, no matter what the people say, so please put money in my political campaign.”

George Lippman, chair of Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission, told the council, “From a social justice standpoint, these laws perpetuate this country’s history of racism.”

Lippman said that in 2015, society seemingly learned a great deal about the prevalence of racism and the different impact of law enforcement on black people.

“But tonight,” Lippman said, “I wonder if we have learned anything at all. The impact of these laws is to further the mass incarceration of African Americans and to destroy black lives and black communities. This is the hidden reality of the anti-homeless ordinances. And it gives the lie to the liberal Berkeley rhetoric that we all agree that black lives matter. These laws say that black lives, in fact, do not matter. Anti-homeless ordinances are part of the ethnic cleansing of American cities as much as racial cleansing.”

 

Four women who played inspiring roles in organizing a vigil and sleep-out at City Hall. From left to right, Moni Law, Genevieve Wilson, Elisa Cooper and Sally Hindman.

From left to right, Moni Law, Genevieve Wilson and Sally Hindman at the vigil and sleep-out at Berkeley City Hall.

 

Sleep-Out in Solidarity

Moni Law and Sally Hindman helped organize a sleep-out that began on the steps of old City Hall on Monday, November 16. The two women and a few others slept on the steps all night before the council meeting, and their act of solidarity triggered the large-scale occupation that flourished into a community of people in tents and sleeping bags that soon covered the City Hall grounds.

Moni Law told the City Council, “It was freezing last night,” adding that she was awakened repeatedly by the cold weather and by car alarms and street noises, and found what it was like to have no access to a bathroom all night long.

In the morning, she wrote this reflection about the sleep-out: “On this cold night, after sleeping out in solidarity with my homeless neighbors, I said, ‘Lord give comfort and relief to the men, women and children who suffer daily from food and housing insecurity — homeless people.”

Law told the councilmembers that Jesus and Buddha would tell them to have compassion for homeless people. She added, “Shame on us. Shame on us for jailing people and fining people. If they’re homeless, give them the help they need instead of a jail cell or a fine.”

Many seniors can barely remain in their housing due to rising rents, Law said. Law works to help people find housing, and in moving terms, she described the desperate urgency of the people she helps. “There are children and seniors in the food lines in Berkeley,” she said. “There is a 74-year-old senior sleeping out on the sidewalk every night. She told me it was so cold and wet and she had nowhere to go. Why does she have to sleep out on the street? Instead of facing this kind of law, what about a compassionate policy for the people?

“Jesus said feed the hungry and house the homeless, and call out to them with unconditional love. All our faith traditions, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim, all call for compassion. Mahatma Gandhi agitated for the untouchables.”

Sally Hindman helped to organize the sleep-out and described the 36-hour vigil and fast as “deeply spirited but very cold and noisy.”

“I got really sick afterwards,” Hindman said. “It’s simply miserable being homeless. As an asthma sufferer I particularly can’t imagine how people survive out there day in and day out in the cold with compromised lung capacity.”

Despite these hardships, Hindman felt it was essential to find some way to act in solidarity with people on the streets. “I had no choice but to take the strongest possible faithful actions to stand in solidarity with my homeless brothers and sisters fighting for justice,” she said. “The situation for those on the streets has become increasingly desperate. There are two-year wait lists to get into affordable housing.

“The Berkeley police and Downtown Ambassadors are already harassing folks on the street with tickets and efforts to make life on the street even more miserable than it already is. And now there’s a fight to make it illegal for homeless people to carry their belongings with them, when we will never have proper storage space to protect their things. I just can’t keep functioning like it’s business as usual.”

ASUC Senate Condemns Berkeley Laws

Marium Navid, a Vice President of The Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) told the City Council, “I am here on behalf of the thousands of students who elected me to this position.” The UC Senate passed a resolution that unanimously condemned the City Council’s anti-homeless measures and “the way these laws are set up to treat homeless people in this community.”

Navid added, “I am frankly disappointed that the elected officials of the city that I live in could even propose something this horrendous. This is not how you solve the problem. This is how you reintroduce institutional racism. This is how you make sure that you violate human rights.”

The entire anti-homeless campaign was orchestrated by the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. Despite all the impassioned testimony of countless Berkeley residents who spoke out against the inhumanity of the new laws, the only people the City Council majority would listen to were John Caner of the Downtown Berkeley Association and Kirsten McDonald of the Chamber of Commerce.

The ordinance was passed by a bloc of votes on the City Council consisting of Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Linda Maio, Laurie Capitelli, Lori Droste, Daryl Moore and Susan Wengraf.

The Mayor and the Moment of Silence

Just before they cast their votes to persecute and criminalize homeless people, a woman walked up to the microphone and denounced their actions. She then called for a moment of silence “for all of the homeless and disabled senior citizens who will die on the streets from exposure to the cold because they cannot find housing.”

Mayor Bates ignored her request, and loudly broke into the moment of silence again and again. Every time she asked for just a moment of silence to honor the suffering of homeless people, Bates broke into the silence and loudly ordered her to sit down, even though she was one of the very last speakers and might have been afforded a moment of silence.

She refused to sit down and called again for a moment of silence, but Bates continued to break into the moment of silence. He badgered her and ordered her to sit down. He could easily have granted this simple request. Instead, he showed a complete lack of respect for the suffering of homeless people in his city.

One last time she tried. Once again Bates barked at her to sit down. She said, “A moment of silence for those who will die in the cold.”

The mayor rudely told her to sit down.

“Shame on you,” the woman said. “I said a moment of silence to show respect and honor, but you clearly have none.”

This is how bad it has become in Berkeley under the administration of Mayor Bates. The mayor is on his way out, and one of his last public acts in the season leading into Christmas was to override a simple request for a moment of silence to honor the poorest of the poor.

His legacy is this new set of laws that persecutes people in need.

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