Berkeley’s Choice: Compassion or Repression

“I really think it’s a stupid measure and it’s not going to do anything to help people on the street,” said Jesse Arreguin of the Berkeley City Council. “It’s not going to solve homelessness, it’s not going to do anything to improve the plight of small businesses in our city.”

Young people created a model of a colorfully painted home to symbolize their dream of a youth center in Berkeley. Photo by Ariel Messman-Rucker

 

by Ariel Messman-Rucker

 

Berkeley has a long-standing reputation as a city that has stood for civil rights and equality. Yet, the city’s historic image as a sanctuary for human rights has been jeopardized because a few big businesses persuaded Mayor Tom Bates to place a sitting ban measure on the ballot on November 6.

Voters are asked to decide whether to uphold equal rights for all, or to allow the police to discriminate against the disenfranchised for the benefit of business interests. If Measure S is passed, sitting down on the sidewalks of Berkeley’s commercial districts would become illegal from the hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Those who spend their days working to help the homeless — service providers, religious leaders, poverty rights attorneys and homeless advocates — are certain the ordinance will quickly become a way to target homeless people at the behest of merchants without addressing the real problems causing people to live on the streets.

“I really think it’s a stupid measure and it’s not going to do anything to help people on the street,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “It’s not going to solve homelessness, it’s not going to do anything to improve the plight of small businesses in our city.

“I’m in favor of real solutions and actually providing services that people need and housing that people need to move on a path to self-sufficiency. I don’t believe that passing laws to criminalize people with no place to go is going to solve the problem.”

Berkeley City Councilmembers Arreguin, Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington were the only three council members to fight against Measure S when Mayor Bates and the rest of the council voted in favor of putting it on the ballot on July 10, 2012.

The text of Measure S states that it will not be used to target specific groups and will be used “in a manner that does not discriminate against homeless, mentally ill or other residents of the City based on their status.” But the findings of the ballot measure also name homeless people and “sidewalk encampments” as the reason the new ordinance is needed, leading those opposed to Measure S to believe that it will in fact be selectively enforced.

“I’m sure they are going to arrest lots of upper-middle-class people in coats and ties every single day and they’ll have a separate police vehicle to carry all the groceries that those folks are carrying with them,” said Kriss Worthington of the Berkeley City Council. “No, clearly the whole purpose of having this is to criminalize the poor and the homeless no matter how much they claim that it isn’t. It’s pretty clear that that’s what it’s about.”

If the measure goes into effect, police will be able to give warnings to anyone sitting on the sidewalk in commercial districts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. A person could be charged with an infraction and either a $75 fine or community service once a second warning is given. After that, any subsequent violations could result in another infraction or even a misdemeanor charge and jail time.

Along with police officers, the Downtown Berkeley Ambassadors will be charged with asking people to move along if they are in sitting in the commercial district and pointing homeless people towards resources and services.

While this sounds like a new way to do street-level outreach, people who work closely with the homeless are certain the Ambassadors will have little effect because they lack the kind of training and knowledge that social workers and caseworkers have.

“The work that’s needed in connecting with them and building trust is not something that a host ambassador could get near,” said Sally Hindman, the executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks, a program that works with low-income and homeless youth. “It requires long-term committed outreach people that care deeply about youth or homeless people and are really going to work at building trusting relationships over time.”

Young artists from Youth Spirit Artworks hung their paintings and prayer flags on the model home to show city officials their positive vision of the future. Photo by Ariel Messman-Rucker

 

According to the official Yes on Measure S ballot argument, “Yes on S will help people get the critical services they need to transform their lives” and also “encourages alternatives to street life.”  But those opposed to the ordinance say that is an impossible goal because there is a severe lack of available resources and far too few shelter beds in Berkeley.

“What I think we need are people there who are actually social workers who have a rapport with the people,” said Councilmember Worthington. “You can’t just stick somebody out there. You’re sending these people on a foolish mission. You’re telling them to go tell [homeless people] about services, but the very essential services that they need do not exist.”

Worthington pointed out another serious problem with the measure. “There is no money in the measure to pay for anybody to do anything,” he said. “So we’re getting all of these promises that things are going to get better, but there’s not one penny to do a single positive thing.”

The youth on the streets in Berkeley will be hit especially hard by an ordinance that doesn’t allow people to sit on the sidewalk because there is only one homeless youth shelter in Berkeley — and it is only open half the year and closes during the day. There are no youth centers that are open year-round, Hindman said.

The YEAH shelter (Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing) provides about six months of overnight shelter during the coldest part of the year, from November through May for transition-age youth, ages 18 to 25. But the YEAH shelter only has enough beds for about 20 to 22 people per night, said executive director Ralph Johnson.

“There are far more individuals out on the street than there are shelter beds,” Johnson said. “Certainly, just our 20 beds are not enough to provide the shelter needed by the numbers that are on the streets on any given night.”

YEAH also has a year-round program that helps a small number of homeless youth with ongoing care such as case work and therapy, but it’s still not enough to handle the large number of Berkeley youth who need help.

“We have an estimated 400 homeless youth on any given day in Berkeley, stemming partly from the fact that in California, 5,000 youth age out of foster care every year,” Hindman said. “And because of the lack of resources, 50 percent of those youth become homeless within six months.”

A large percentage of youth end up homeless and on the streets because they have aged out of the foster care system, or have been kicked out of their homes, or have been released from the juvenile justice system, Johnson said. There is also an overarching problem of the lack of jobs available for young people today.

At a protest of the Berkeley sitting ban, giant puppets of Gandhi, Christ and Martin Luther King symbolically represent religious opposition to persecution of the poor. Photo by Ariel Messman-Rucker

 

“Just because of their situation, they more than likely have a small, minimal support system of family members or friends,” Johnson said. “And also, due to the length of time they might have been in foster care or in a juvenile justice facility, a lot of connections they had might have been severed because of that.”

Hindman said that homeless youth often come into her program with severe emotional problems or post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they went through during their youth. Many were taken out of their homes because of parental abuse or neglect and then were often abused or traumatized in foster care, too.

“It’s an equation that doesn’t add up to any sort of ability to succeed if you’ve been in that situation,” she said. “It’s really, really hard.”

Craig Becker, a backer of Measure S and owner of Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, wrote an op-ed in favor of Measure S for local news website Berkeleyside in which he placed the blame for declining business profits on what he called “nomadic youth” who he claimed are “service-resistant.”
Becker gave a blanket judgment of all homeless youth: “Traveling is a lifestyle choice for this group and, when approached by homeless outreach personnel, they decline to participate in the services that are aimed at long-term lifestyle changes.”

“It makes me so angry, quite frankly, to hear people talk about the youth that are out on Telegraph and Shattuck as just these youth that just choose to be homeless and they’re just sort of these spoiled, bratty youth that just feel like traveling around for a while,” Hindman said.

“It’s deceptive and it perpetuates an inaccurate picture of who these youth are and why they’re where they are. It’s naïve, it’s inaccurate and it doesn’t do anybody any good in describing them that way because it doesn’t get us closer to reaching them and helping them get where they need to go.”

According to YEAH, there are an estimated 1,200 homeless people in Berkeley, 225 of which are youth between the ages of 18 and 25. Through interviews with youth living on the streets, YEAH found that the average age at which these youth became homeless is 15.5 years, and the average length of time they have been homeless is 2.5 years. They also found that half of the homeless youth interviewed have not graduated from high school, 35 percent have lived in foster care and 79 percent have no source of income.

Startling statistics like these, combined with the critical lack of resources and services for homeless youth in Berkeley, have many homeless service providers worried about the impact of Measure S on this young and vulnerable population.

“If people were really serious about solving homelessness, they would say, ‘Gee, maybe we need a year-round youth shelter so that there aren’t a lot of young people without a place to stay during the summer months,’” said Pattie Wall, executive director of Homeless Action Center.

Though Hindman has been working to fight against Measure S, she says that regardless of whether or not people vote in favor of the ordinance on November 6, homeless youth will still be living on the streets of Berkeley if they don’t receive more help from the community.

In an effort to challenge this growing attack on homeless people and youth in Berkeley, Youth Spirit Artworks held an event in front of Old City Hall on October 16 to raise awareness about the No on Measure S campaign and to appeal to the City Council for more services for youth.

Youth Spirit Artworks is a nonprofit job-training program that uses art to better the lives of low-income and homeless youth, ages 16 to 25. Executive Director Sally Hindman and youth from YSA are requesting that the Berkeley City Council grant $50,000 per year to expand their program and turn their organization into a year-round day program.

The plan includes moving from their current location to a larger space in a building next to the YEAH shelter so that the two programs can work in tandem. It will also allow them to increase the number of youth they serve and hire their senior artist full time.

Hindman, joined by many youth from her program and other homeless advocates, led the group in speaking out against the inhumanity of the proposed sitting ban. They also described the pressing need for more programs and housing to help homeless youth in Berkeley.

The group then read aloud a public letter in protest of Measure S, which was signed by 50 local clergy and religious leaders and was later presented to the Berkeley City Council.

In the letter, religious leaders ask, “How could we possibly punish youth who are homeless, instead of focusing our energy on creating a real community safety net for these vulnerable young people?” [To read the letter in its entirety see Street Spirit October 2012: “Religious Leaders Speak Out Against Berkeley’s Measure S”]

Youth from Youth Spirit Artworks then constructed a model youth center and invited those in attendance to help decorate it with colorful prayer flags designed and painted by the young artists.

As the event outside the doors of City Hall concluded, Hindman, the youth from YSA and members of the community processed into the City Council meeting to speak out against Measure S and to ask for funding to expand their program.

“The youth I have worked with in the last nine months since my arrival in Berkeley have indicated to me that though they come from low-income backgrounds, though they come, some of them, from (being) homeless, they have shown potential, they have shown pride in what they do, but mostly they have shown their willingness to learn,” YSA senior artist Victor Mavedzenge told the council.

Mavedzenge works to foster the creativity of homeless and low-income youth, and tries to hold out some hope for them that, through hard work and dedication, they may find housing and jobs. But these efforts are constantly stymied due to the scant services and scarce funding for programs serving youth on the street.

“But what we are facing at Youth Spirit Artworks is the fact that our space is limited and also it’s one of those very few youth centers around in Berkeley,” he said. “So what we ask the council to do is consider the grant application for Youth Spirit Artworks on University Avenue.

“We would be very grateful if you would consider the youth that are showing promise — showing that they’ve got what it takes to become contributing citizens of society. What I ask of you is if you could give them a chance.”

The City Council also heard from four YSA youth who testified about their strong disagreement with Measure S. The young people spoke out strongly for the proposal to expand YSA into a larger program that would serve more people and act as a day center for Berkeley’s homeless and low-income youth.

“If the people together as a community decide to pass Measure S, we are saying that we have a solution,” YSA youth Adonis Pollard said in his speech to the City Council. “Instead of putting all these youth, who can spend their time more creatively, in jail where they don’t need to be just because they’re homeless, they can be back in society doing creative artwork and being more positive and being more influential in their community.”

The proposal for $50,000 annually will be put on the Berkeley City Council agenda for their November 13 meeting, said Worthington, who is co-sponsoring the item along with Max Anderson.

Hindman said that many of the youth in her program are afraid that if Measure S passes, it will become yet another tool to harass low-income youth of color.

“I also feel like the police will use that as a tool to attack youth,” said 18-year-old Tiphereth Banks, a YSA junior artist. “Like, I’ve already been attacked because I’m black and I feel like if that law passes, me and my friends will get attacked just for being outside because we got attacked before this law even came up.”

 

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