All Shook Up: How Human Beings Are Turned into Categories

When highly diverse individuals are lumped into a single category, the result is terribly misleading. In the composite picture in the minds of those who promote anti-homeless laws, many different sorts of people are merged into one. The ensuing discussions get shipwrecked because nobody is having the same discussion.

by Carol Denney

Trying to talk to people about anti-homeless laws is like entering a hall of mirrors.

Whether you’re trying to talk about the original laws proposed by Berkeley Councilmember Linda Maio and the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), and provisionally passed by the City Council on March 17, 2015, or Maio’s middle-of-the-night amendments on June 30, 2015, or the growing mountain of laws targeting “problematic street behavior” in cities nationwide, the discussion tends to indiscriminately group very different individuals into a single category.

Rowdy high school kids, drunks, junkies, recently evicted families, homeless women, people recently released from jail, panhandlers, youth, the LGBT population, people with dogs, people too poor to afford the Bay Area’s skyrocketing rents, people who threaten others, people who urinate in public, people with mental illness, people traveling through town for a concert or job prospect, and people with a lot of belongings to shepherd through town with no legal place to go, all get discussed as though they are all the same.

It’s dizzying. The composite picture in the minds of people who promote anti-homeless laws is a predictable nightmare. It’s as though all the groups in the preceding paragraph were put in a bag, shaken together and merged into one, and the ensuing discussions, even honest efforts to find common ground, get shipwrecked because nobody is having the same discussion.

Bathrooms are a great example. The DBA, with no particular objection from the City Council, is well on its way to succeeding in avoiding having a public bathroom in the BART Plaza redesign despite its being the best, most logical place for a public bathroom in the downtown area.

The DBA scrambles to look pro-bathroom in public by promoting BART’s opening its bathrooms (closed as a security risk after 9-11), and promoting the idea that city garages and other out-of-the-way places could take up some of the slack.

“Homelessness Has Faces.”  Rodney Bell, a formerly homeless artist and musician, created this artwork to show that people who have been homeless are all individuals — and not a faceless mass or nameless category.

“Homelessness Has Faces.” Rodney Bell, a formerly homeless artist and musician, created this artwork to show that people who have been homeless are all individuals — and not a faceless mass or nameless category.


But in private documents, they call bathrooms “an attractive nuisance” and recommend against them despite the obvious irony of DBA CEO’s John Caner’s very public and very indignant complaints about the inevitable result.

Let’s have the same discussion about the same issues. Many of the issues we’d like to solve as a community are easy to solve. And perhaps the easiest, in theory, is housing our working class and poor.

If all development going forward were dedicated to addressing our crisis in low-income housing instead of being a parlor game played by politicians on behalf of wealthy developers who are generous around campaign time, we would have a healthy head start.

We could have housed all of our poor and homeless residents — a relatively small number — long ago. Let’s get started.

Berkeley shelter closes

The closure of the largest homeless shelter in Berkeley leaves many with nowhere to go

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