by Carol Denney
Most people think they’re ridiculous, but harmless. They walk around downtown Berkeley in bright, lime-green shirts identifying themselves as “ambassadors,” a new version of an older program which hit the wall years ago as a kind of homeless patrol doling out “services” to some and calling the police on others.
Berkeley’s merchant association claims the “ambassadors” work to make the downtown more welcoming. Their green shirts have the logo of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), which, along with the Business Improvement District (BID), contracts with Kentucky-based Block by Block to execute the program.
Block by Block’s slogan is “Safety, cleaning, hospitality and outreach solutions for downtown improvement districts.” Block by Block currently runs 46 programs in cities from Akron, Ohio, to Yakima, Washington.
What do the “ambassadors” do on the streets of Berkeley? They sweep and pick up trash. They clean up graffiti, the definition of which apparently includes anything not officially written by the city or the Downtown Berkeley Association itself, which has the keys to a glass-covered information kiosk by the BART Station for their members’ use alone.
If you put up a poster about your missing dog, they’ll tear it down within seconds, claiming it’s illegal. They steam-wash sidewalks so repeatedly that anyone carrying everything they own is likely to have their few belongings soaked and ruined. But that’s not all they do.
Block by Block “ambassadors” are not unionized. They’re paid considerably less than city maintenance crews and have fewer, if any, benefits, so one could argue that they save the city money, albeit at the expense of city workers.
But their assignment is wider than picking up the occasional fast food wrapper. Block by Block makes their anti-homeless agenda quite clear on their website: “The largest drivers of negative perceptions are frequent low level quality of life crimes. Our ambassadors are a significant part of a proactive safety and security strategy to challenge unwanted activities.”
Years ago, when the Downtown Berkeley Association changed its name from the Downtown Business Association, it lamented that most merchants were unwilling to call the police and sign formal complaints against “problematic street behavior,” behavior which was not specifically criminal but which they felt might discourage shoppers.
The DBA even created signs for merchants showing a circle with a line through it over an outstretched hand in an effort to encourage both merchants and customers to call the police on a special phone number if they saw examples of “problematic street behavior” assumed to depress business.
The outrage over the public funding of this effort to target homeless people, who are obligated to exist in public and more often the victims of than the perpetrators of crime, eventually gave birth to Berkeley’s Business Improvement District (BID), a private entity which levies an assessment on the property owners within its geographical confines as well as an assessment from the city itself (and thus the public) from public spaces such as plazas.
The BID: Utterly Undemocratic
In this way, what was once a public commons becomes a revenue source for the privately run and utterly undemocratic entity, the BID, which then patrols public space and regulates public behavior.
Business improvement districts began in the 1960s and are now a worldwide phenomenon. Enabling legislation at the state level sets the stage for local business improvement districts, according to Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, one of the few groups which has made a specific study of BIDs.
Only 51 percent of the property owners within the district’s confines are required to create a BID, and in some places the threshold is as low as 31 percent.
Block by Block’s particular genius was in crafting a program model that could then be plugged into any town’s BID.
“They have a plan, and the plan is to gentrify downtown and make it like a shopping mall,” said Boden. “They’re self-perpetuating in that they found a funding stream that is pretty fucking limitless.”
Berkeley’s DBA tried 20 years ago to criminalize panhandling with a law that was first overturned by an outraged public’s referendum, then put on the ballot by a council majority, then passed in the next election by a bare majority of voters, and finally tossed out by the courts as unconstitutional.
The business leaders of the DBA and BID probably counted on that same bare majority of voters to pass an anti-sitting law, Measure S, in the November 2012 election, underestimating both Berkeley voters’ common sense and a small but dedicated group of civil rights defenders.
The “ambassador” program has had previous incarnations. At one time, it was a locally based program that, according to at least one former DBA board member, did occasionally connect homeless people with appropriate services. The decision to outsource it to Block by Block was not, according to the former member, a DBA board decision.
The current DBA board tends to be populated more by large property owners than local business owners, and decisions once the province of the board tend today to be made by a smaller, less representative group, according to former staff.
The current “ambassadors” in the Block by Block model treat poor people on public streets as a nuisance. One “ambassador” was recently seen sweeping repeatedly around the feet of a woman wrapped in a blanket on a bench who had all her belongings with her. He swept immediately to her right, then right under her and under the bench itself, then immediately to her left, then under her under the bench again, continuously sweeping inches from her body. It’s safe to suggest that no well-dressed bench-sitter would be similarly treated.
Some of the Block by Block staff were formerly on the street themselves, which the DBA suggests helps establish rapport with poor and homeless people. But the mission, according to former DBA staff, has moved away from connecting people in need with services and toward “moving homeless people out of town,” a mission at considerable odds with developing rapport. Boden said this is not unusual. The mission of a BID, he says, is to create the same atmosphere as a shopping mall.
“Take that environment and take that kind of control and plop it down in your downtown. That’s what a BID is for,” said Boden. There are seven or eight BIDs in San Francisco. There are 37 in Manhattan.
If you’re a downtown merchant obligated geographically to pay a fee to the Business Improvement District and you oppose discriminatory policies aimed at the poor, you can object aloud, of course. You have to be brave enough to weather the potential backlash from the merchant association and participating businesses, some of which might be enthusiastic about relocating the homeless.
Business is tough, after all, and homeless people are easier to target than something as nebulous as the economy. The popular narrative that groups of transient youth, panhandlers, and homeless people ruin business is not supported by fact, nationally or locally, but it is the primary narrative you’ll hear from both the DBA and the Berkeley City Council, with the exception of Kriss Worthington, Max Anderson, and Jesse Arreguin.
Relocating Unwanted Groups
“Ambassadors” are not shy about relocating unwanted groups. It’s their job to engage with people whose “unwanted activities” are not necessarily prohibited by law, but are presumed to depress the vitality of a commercial district, according to Block by Block’s guidelines.
It may well be difficult to spend several hundred dollars on an evening of dinner and theater without feeling guilty when you have to pass people living as best they can on the street. But the most guilt-ridden downtown shopper should be revolted by the idea that public streets are being cleared for their personal comfort.
Clearing the streets of people in need deprives them of their right to exist in public space, and also deprives the larger community, both wealthy shoppers and the rest of us, of the opportunity to see and respond to human need, to realize its scope and take action.
The DBA describes transient youth, panhandlers, and homeless people alike as addicted to drugs and as threats to public safety, as the campaign literature of the failed Measure S campaign made clear.
The failed anti-sitting ballot initiative would have criminalized all sitting by everyone between certain hours, even a kid on a curb with an ice cream cone. Questions about the absurdity of this were met with the assurance that the law would not be used against “those” people, raising additional issues of discrimination.
Demonizing the Poor
But the point remains that demonizing poor and homeless people helps smooth the way for discriminatory laws, discriminatory practices, and a population unable to hear or respond to honest human need.
Dr. Davida Coady, director of Options Recovery in Berkeley, defended the extreme language of Measure S without embarrassment on KQED’s Forum show before the November 2012 election, rejecting the idea that anyone sitting on Berkeley’s streets might be just resting for a minute and enjoying the weather.
The Berkeley City Council, even if motivated to do so, would have little control over a Business Improvement District (BID), which is a private and privately funded entity. But Berkeley’s ambassador program does get some public funding.
The BID goes before Berkeley’s Human Welfare and Community Action Commission in January seeking $195,000 from the general fund. If Block by Block’s strategic plan is working, there will be a rash of complimentary articles published just before the funding meetings which make the “ambassadors” look like compassionate saints and make Block by Block seem essential to the success of commercial districts. Most newspapers, strapped for local copy, will print the press releases without asking the tough questions.
A May 2011 City of Berkeley report on the “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative” describes the “ambassadors” as having made “a marginal change, if any, in the overall quality of life in the Telegraph and Downtown areas.”
This may mean a further reduction in funding for the controversial program, or it could mean an even more determined effort to criminalize some other aspect of homelessness now that Berkeley voters have rejected the anti-sitting law.
Those who oppose local efforts to make public spaces the sole territory of well-heeled merchants and shoppers need to recognize that as revolting and undemocratic as the local politics of greed-based legislation can be, these local campaigns against the poor are just examples of a national program systematizing those efforts coast to coast.
Block by Block may tailor Akron’s program slightly differently than Yakima’s, but the same model is being used nationwide to make sure property owners — often the largest donors to local political campaigns — govern downtown priorities.
The Most Expensive Campaign In Berkeley History
Measure S, the most expensive campaign in Berkeley’s history, was funded almost entirely by large property-holding companies which play an influential role on the DBA board and whose representatives were, according to a former staff member, inspired by the passage of Measure L, San Francisco’s anti-sitting law.
No former or current staff member was willing to go on record regarding misgivings about the Block by Block ambassador program, some out of concern for their jobs, and others out of concern for their general relations with the DBA-controlled business interests.
Measure S may have been defeated in Berkeley, but the political pressures that created it are alive and well. Should business interests play the largest role in creating legislation? What can a community do after watching more than $120,000 in Berkeley wasted trying to convince people that simply sitting down should be a crime, noting that around 40 percent of Berkeley’s voters supported doing just that?
Awakening the public and the media to the tactics of Block by Block and Business Improvement Districts are part of what a concerned community needs to do to combat the juggernaut of systematic attacks on the human rights of the poor.
The other component is civic leadership that refuses to scapegoat the poor, the real victims in both good times and bad. There is a very tangible human cost to allowing greed to play the largest role in our community and our legislative priorities.