Berkeley Declares an Official Shelter Crisis

The critical mass of people shivering in doorways, behind dumpsters and in parks has stuffed a sock in the “we do enough for the homeless” song Mayor Tom Bates usually sings.

by Carol Denney

The Berkeley City Council officially affirmed — in the quietest way possible — that Berkeley has a shelter crisis at its council meeting on Tuesday, January 19, 2016. Councilmember Laurie Capitelli requested that “Declare a Homeless Shelter Crisis in Berkeley,” an action calendar item, be added to the consent calendar instead, the place where non-controversial items can be grouped together for quick passage without the need for changes or discussion. There were no objections.

The item had come from Kriss Worthington’s office and had been booted from meeting to meeting since before the holidays. Worthington is one of the few on the Berkeley City Council who has consistently responded to the need for low-income housing and resisted the criminalization of poverty in the many years he has represented District 7, the southside of the UC campus.

Perhaps the critical mass of people shivering in doorways, behind dumpsters, under freeway overpasses and in parks has finally stuffed a sock in the “we do enough for the homeless” song Mayor Tom Bates usually sings in the face of any suggestion that Berkeley should do more.

Most of the Berkeley City Council loves that song, a song also sung by other city councils which flutter their fans over the common refrain that doing anything more should wait until there’s a “regional” approach to housing, and federal or state funding is made available, etc. It tempts the creative among us to draw a comic of a ragged guy shivering on the street corner holding a sign that says, “Waiting for a regional approach to homelessness. PLEASE HELP.”

It might be considered hypocritical for a council majority which spent the summer hammering its way relentlessly toward another anti-homeless law (fondly known as the “two square foot law”) to even acknowledge a “Homeless Shelter Crisis” in light of decades of bluster about having enough “services” and just waiting patiently for that regional approach thing.

But don’t stop watching, if you’re paying enough attention to read this far. Emergency declarations can be useful. They can free up otherwise occupied funding or dissolve restricted zoning which might otherwise complicate the use of empty buildings for shelters, of which Berkeley has plenty. But emergency declarations can also be abused. People can be forced off the street, as happens all over the country — whether it is officially recognized or not.

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently issued an executive order to force the homeless off the streets in cold weather, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio sniffed that the city “already has the ability to forcibly remove homeless New Yorkers who are in imminent danger,” as reported in the New York Daily News on January 5, 2016. That observation was affirmed by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who stated flatly that the transit police had been doing it since the early 1990s.

Berkeley does it, too. If the Berkeley police want you off the street, you’re gone — maybe to John George Psychiatric for a psych evaluation, maybe for a three-day stay in Berkeley’s own city facility, maybe down to North County or maybe off to Santa Rita jail. An enormous amount of public money, not to mention police and emergency medical staff overtime, is spent fulfilling the Downtown Berkeley Association’s dream of having the streets cleared of anybody too scruffy or with a few too many belongings to fit into their Disneyland dreamscape.

You might see an abandoned shopping cart with a few possessions in it — some books, some socks, some useful tools or bundled belongings — and wonder about it for a few seconds. And it might mean that someone was offered a warm, cozy room in a house in exchange for keeping up the yard or helping out around the place, and may have left a few things behind for the next guy. But it might also mean that some impatient neighbor made a call and some city official caught someone shipwrecked by circumstance on a really bad day.

The Department of Justice in far-off Washington, D.C., has caught on to the way cities spend money pointlessly circling people in need through jails and hospitals. Now the DOJ is tiptoeing toward insisting that housing, actual housing, be the obvious solution through its remarkable August 6, 2015, Statement of Interest that declared that laws that criminalize homelessness are unconstitutional and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

And the Housing and Urban Development guidelines for grants warn city governments that criminalizing homelessness is not only a misguided policy, but also may result in a denial of federal homelessness funding. It might seem like a moral point, but it is also a practical matter: Public funding should simply not be wasted on pointless, ineffective criminalization which often makes matters worse.

Maybe the Berkeley City Council is finally listening. Maybe it finally did a little math and realized that you could not only house people, you could put them through college with what we’re spending on criminalizing the poor. It’s a brand new year, and anything is possible.

But the community of conscience which consistently and reverently presses for the recognition that housing is a human right knows this moment well. An emergency declaration, long overdue, sounds good. Let’s make sure it is used in a sensible manner to help ensure that everyone has a place to call home.

Liberty City revealed the human face of Berkeley’s “shelter crisis” to all the city politicians by creating an occupation at Old City Hall. Lydia Gans photo

Liberty City dramatically revealed the reality of Berkeley’s “shelter crisis” — a crisis caused by the Mayor and City Council. When homeless people created an occupation at Old City Hall and began caring for one another, it exposed the years of unconscionable neglect of the poorest citizens by Berkeley city officials. Lydia Gans photo




Because We Upon This Earth Are One

by Carol Denney


the wealthy here on earth cannot

afford to scorn the poor

and not for fear of bringing

forth the wrath from heaven’s door

and not because the first of stones

must come from someone free of sins

but because we upon this earth

are one we are one

because we upon this earth

are one


no man of wealth can truly know

what favor came his way

what fortune was an effort that

his birthright might betray

misfortune in some lives is spared

and all good fortune best is shared

because we upon this earth

are one we are one

because we upon this earth

are one


no man of wealth can cast an eye

on others in disdain

while knowing nothing of their lives

their stories and their pain

an open ear can always chart

the distance from an open heart

because we upon this earth

are one we are one

because we upon this earth

are one


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