Religious Leaders Say: “Do Not Criminalize Homeless People”

In an open letter to the Berkeley City Council, religious leaders say: “Do Not Criminalize Homeless People in Berkeley. We stand lovingly and firmly united in opposition to new proposed laws criminalizing homeless people. The new homeless laws violate our deep conviction to express compassion for all living beings.”
An angel hovers over a dumpster. Many faith traditions are deeply committed to acts of compassion and justice for poor and homeless people. Art by Jonathan Burstein.

An angel hovers over a dumpster. Many faith traditions are deeply committed to acts of compassion and justice for poor and homeless people. Art by Jonathan Burstein.


To All Those Concerned:

As Berkeley and Bay Area clergy and religious leaders of diverse faith traditions, we stand lovingly and firmly united in opposition to new proposed laws criminalizing homeless people. As we describe in this letter, we do so through our shared, deeply held religious convictions calling us to compassion, justice and stewardship of resources.


The new homeless laws violate our deep conviction to express compassion for all living beings.


We share a deep commitment to seeing and respecting the wonder of humanity in each of our brothers and sisters daily through the choices we make and the action we take to honor the dignity of these neighbors. Thus, of course, we oppose the criminalization of homeless people.

We believe that the new proposed laws will without question, increase ticketing and arresting of homeless people. We cannot support this approach to solving the problems of homelessness because it is demeaning and damaging to people’s fundamental well-being, and self-esteem.

We are concerned that an indirect impact of these laws will be that, in order to make commercial areas “more civil,” homeless people will be shuffled from one street corner to another, by threats of receiving citations, a practice that is cruel, when the deeper needs of these individuals for shelter, housing, jobs and other resources remain inadequately addressed.

As many have pointed out, there is a two-year waiting list in Alameda County for affordable housing, which means most people on the street literally have no alternative options indoors, except possibly emergency shelter.

We cringe at the inhumanity that this “clamping down” on the rights of the poorest people comes at a time when market-rate housing is at an all-time high in the Bay Area. We believe these punitive laws — with the extreme difficulties people face during this period — is both ill-timed and, additionally, cruel.

As clergy and religious leaders, we can never condone such an approach that is tantamount to “kicking our brothers and sisters when they are down.”


The proposed new laws are unjust and violate our shared spiritual call to seek justice.


All of the great religions ultimately teach us to co-create a just world. As religious leaders, we know and hold dear the Scriptural teachings of Micah 6:8, Luke 10: 30-37, and the Qur’an Sura 4: 135-136, among many others, to be reminded of our call to justice.

By making illegal multiple new behaviors in commercial areas, the 2015 proposed laws almost certainly guarantee unequal enforcement of the law. If a non-homeless citizen pauses for a moment’s rest on the edge of a planter, for example, what are the chances that person will be “moved along” with the threat of a citation?

These new numerous laws — in all likelihood to be selectively enforced — are plain and simply wrong.

Additionally, regardless of what dollar amount the City of Berkeley spends cumulatively on resources for homeless people, we know that Berkeley still has a huge shortage of daily shelter beds, a dramatic shortage of permanent affordable housing units, and long waiting lists for existing housing programs, as well as long waiting lists for securing case management, and no in-patient detox program for people struggling with addiction.

So punishing anyone who has failed to get off the street, would be difficult to justify.

If Berkeley had adequate resources available to serve the chronically homeless population, we believe that veteran social workers and street chaplains, devoted to building long-term relationships of trust, would have qualitatively better results in getting these often hard-to-reach citizens into services — far more so than citation-minded police, or other less committed outreach people, acting in accordance with these new and inhumane proposals.

As relates to homeless youth, we are aware that, despite the estimated average of 400 homeless young people on any given night (which includes “couch surfing”), this community continues to have shockingly inadequate services.

Berkeley has no funded drop-in program for homeless youth and therefore no place for homeless young people to go during the day.

The City has the sum-total of 25 temporary youth shelter beds, for six months of the year and, in wintertime, the YEAH shelter is open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Additionally, Berkeley has a total of 15 units of permanent youth housing, and 28 units of transitional housing. That is it.

There is a huge waiting list for homeless youth case management. How could we possibly punish young people who are homeless, instead of focusing our collective civic energies on creating a real community safety net for these vulnerable citizens?

Thus, with such an appalling lack of adequate services for homeless adults and youth in our immediate community, as religious leaders our devotion to the ideal of social justice compels us to the hard work of creating these desperately needed social programs, in order to serve and empower the homeless population, and particularly, youth.

The glaring inadequacy of our resources painfully makes the case that it is unjust to threaten and/or penalize homeless people for simply being alive and among us!


The proposed new laws demonstrate poor stewardship of resources, violating our commitment to cherish & love the earth.


Especially in these challenging economic times, we must focus carefully on the ways we use our precious resources of time, energy and money so that what we do is efficient, and demonstrably effective. As clergy and religious leaders, we believe the new proposed laws poorly use police resources, resources of the courts and the legal system, taxpayer dollars, and important community input.

Police resources are woefully compromised, if not wasted, through enactment of these unneeded proposed laws, since law enforcement is already stretched thin in daily dealings with larger community problems. We believe it is poor stewardship to divert police attention from other areas of need.

The new proposed laws further demonstrate poor stewardship since they create new unneeded laws when Berkeley already has twelve good laws that can be used to insure safe and clean commercial areas, and appropriate behavior by all individuals on the sidewalks.

Moreover, research on similar “anti-homeless” laws in San Francisco and other cities has shown them to be ineffective in meeting the goals of creating more civil common areas. It is safe to say, then, that these new laws will also prove ineffective.

Any monies spent in pursuit of such misguided practices would be a waste of taxpayer dollars better allocated toward proven solutions to the problems of homelessness.

For the above-mentioned reasons, and more — namely the overarching human calling to compassion, to love our fellow brothers and sisters — we strongly oppose any new laws targeting homeless people in Berkeley.


“Church.” A homeless man finds refuge on the steps of a church in this painting.  Many faith communities in Berkeley are involved in providing shelter, housing and meals to homeless people.  Art by Jonathan Burstein

“Church.” A homeless man finds refuge on the steps of a church in this painting. Many faith communities in Berkeley are involved in providing shelter, housing and meals to homeless people. Art by Jonathan Burstein


Given the enormous needs of homeless and underserved people in Berkeley and the greater Bay Area, we challenge all those who care deeply about poverty to instead redirect whatever available energy, creativity, and resources that can be mustered toward these real solutions that have been found to work in solving the problems of homelessness: permanent affordable housing, adequate emergency shelter, jobs and job training drop-in centers, drug and alcohol treatment programs, and case management support.

We urge the City Council to give most serious consideration to the concrete alternative proposals which have been submitted for consideration responding to these challenges such as the YEAH/Youth Spirit Artworks Youth Housing Subsidies Proposal and the YEAH/YSA Drop In Jobs Training Proposal, as well as the forthcoming recommendations by Berkeley’s Homeless Task Force.


List of Signers

The Board of Directors of Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA)

Rev. Rachel Bauman, Minister of Community Life, First Congregational Church of Berkeley

Rev. Michael Burch, Northbrae Community Church

Bradley. B. Burroughs, PhD, Assistant Professor of Ethics, Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

Rev. Alexandra Childs, United Church of Christ

Rev. Rigoberto Calocarivas, OFM, PhD, Executive Director, The Multicultural Institute

The Reverend Este Gardner Cantor, Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd

boona cheema, LLHD

Rabbi David J. Cooper, Kehilla Community Synagogue

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Congregation Netivot Shalom

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament, American Baptist Seminary of the West at the Graduate Theological Union

Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder, Senior Pastor, City of Refuge United Church of Christ, Co-Chair, Religious Advisory Committee of the National Black Justice Coalition, Religious Council, Human Rights Campaign

Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz, Faithful Fools Street Ministry

Sally Hindman, MA, M.Div., Executive Director, Youth Spirit Artworks

Rev. Anthony Hughes, Pastor, St. Paul AME Church

Rev. Sandhya Jha, Director of Interfaith Programs, East Bay Housing Organizations

The Reverend Jeff R. Johnson, University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley

Rev. Dr. Lizabeth Klein, United Methodist Church

Rev. Earl W. Koteen, Community Minister, Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists

Rev. Jeremiah Kalendae, Affiliated Community Minister, Admissions and Recruitment Director, Starr King School for the Ministry

Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald, Unitarian Universalist Community Minister

Rabbi Michael Lerner, Beyt Tikkun Synagogue Without Walls, Editor, Tikkun Magazine

Bruce H. Lescher, Phd., Jesuit School of Theology Santa Clara University

Rabbi Rachel Jane Litman, Coastside Jewish Community

Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini, Dean of Faculty, Aurelia Henry Reinhardt Professor of Theological Ethics, Director of Studies in Public Ministry, Starr King School for the Ministry

Laura Magnani, Program Director for Healing Justice, American Friends Service Committee

Thomas Massaro, SJ, Dean and Professor of Moral Theology, Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University

Rev. Bob Matthews, United Church of Christ

Rev. Michael McBride, The Way Christian Church, Director of Urban Strategies & Lifelines to Healing Campaign, PICO

Marc McKimmey, M.Div., Diocesan Coordinator, Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Charities of the East Bay

Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, President, Starr King School for the Ministry

Carl Magruder, Quaker Chaplain

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Senior Rabbi, Temple Sinai Oakland, President, East Bay Council of Rabbis

Terry Messman, Street Spirit, Editor, American Friends Service Committee

Jim Neafsey, Phd/M.Div., Homeless Retreats, Ignatian Spirituality Project

Pam Norton, President, Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists

Rev. Kit Novotny, Young Adult Minister, First Congregational Church of Berkeley

Geraldine Oliva, Teacher, Berkeley Zen Center

JC Orton, Coordinator, Night on the Streets Catholic Worker

Peace, Earthcare and Social Witness Committee, Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends

Rev. Lindi Ramsden, Acting Dean of Students and Community Life, Starr King School for the Ministry

Dr. Liza J. Rankow, Director, OneLife Institute

Dr. Clare Ronzani, Lecturer, Christian Spirituality, Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University

Dr. Donald Rothberg, Spirit Rock Center, East Bay Meditation Center

Carolyn Scarr, Program Coordinator, Ecumenical Peace Institute/Clergy and Laity Concerned

Bernard Schlager, Phd., Dean, Pacific School of Religion, Executive Director, Center for Lesbian & Gay Rights in Religion and Ministry

Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke, Berkeley Zen Center

Laurie Senauke, Lay Zen Teacher, Berkeley Zen Center

Rev. Sharon Stalkfleet, Lutheran Church of the Cross

Rev. Brian Stein-Webber, Acting Chief Administrator, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

Dr. Laura Stivers, Dean, School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Dominican University of California, Author of Disrupting Homelessness-Alternative Christian Approaches

Nichola Torbett, Founding Director, Seminary of the Street

Rev. Lauren Van Ham, M.A., Dean, Interfaith Studies, Chaplaincy Institute

Frances H. Townes, Founder, Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless

Rev. Dr. David Vasquez-Levy, President, Pacific School of Religion

Louie Vitale, O.F. M.

Rev. Dr. D. Mark Wilson, St. Mary’s College and UC Berkeley, Youth Program Director, Pacific Center

Pastor Brian Young, Berkeley Friends Church

*** *** *** *** ***

To support these efforts, call:

Mayor Tom Bates at: 981-7100 or

Darryl Moore at: 981-7120

Leave this message: “I oppose criminalizing homeless people. I support the two alternative City Council proposals being considered for funding this year for youth housing subsidies and youth job training.

I support the Homeless Task Force’s recommendations!”


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