The Desperate Housing Crisis in Berkeley

Every day I hear the desperation of people on the street. I worked as a community organizer for 14 years for BOSS, helping homeless people, but now I am jobless and homeless myself. I see how ineffective our housing policies are. We need a revival of street action and protest in Berkeley.

by Michael Diehl

Fences everywhere. Construction everywhere. Berkeley, driven in part by the expansion policies of the University of California, is developing big time. During the week of September 17, many members of the houseless community and residents found a large section of downtown Berkeley fenced off with “no trespassing” signs put up as the public commons is once again taken away from us.

As the Downtown Plan development is kicking into gear, we have already seen that homeless services are being driven out of the downtown area, and Business Improvement Districts with their ambassadors are trying to move the houseless people out. The latter have no place to go, since every other city in the Bay Area is also gentrifying and pushing people out.

Down at the Gilman Street overpass on Second Street, fences keep going up and then are torn down again as homeless people keep moving there in opposition to Caltrans and the City of Berkeley trying to push them out. Some of the homeless residents were injured by the roughness of the eviction this summer.

On Durant and Dana Street in front of Trinity Methodist Church, fences have gone up to prevent homeless people from hanging out and sleeping there. The Food Project no longer serves meals there and the Berkeley Free Clinic will soon be gone too. A rich developer would like to buy up the block from the Methodist Church and St. Mary’s to build more of the student housing we have seen built on the corner of Durant and Ellsworth.

On Saturday, October 15, starting at 1 p.m. there will be an event calling attention to the Housing Crisis in the East Bay. In the afternoon, there will be speakers on the issue from Homes not Jails and music. At 6 p.m., be ready for some kind of housing action.

Last March, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance sponsored, ironically enough, by developer and mayoral candidate Laurie Capitelli, to use eminent domain to take over empty abandoned houses in the city for housing the houseless.

According to the City, there are 120 empty multi-units in Berkeley, but even Capitelli cannot get hold of the list showing where these units are. On October 15, I intend to tell you where some of those empty buildings are, and if you come to the housing action, to show you where they are.

Meanwhile, Berkeley has moved to cut back on homeless services in the name of Housing First. The problem is that Berkeley is doing a very poor job of providing that housing. The Hub has received so much of the money available for homelessness in Berkeley, yet it is getting very poor results since its implementation at the start of the year.

Homelessness has greatly increased in Berkeley from a low of about 500 just before the 2008 housing bust and recession, to 1200 people in last January’s count — and it is probably higher now.

Rather than things getting better in terms of housing availability, they have gotten considerably worse since the passage of the still-to-be implemented anti-homeless laws back in December 2015. One of the leaders of the Liberty camp, Mike Lee, is seeking to keep this issue front and center by running for mayor as a way of raising homeless issues.

The City of Berkeley is moving to begin implementing its anti-homeless laws, with storage units being prepared in the basement of the building where the City Council has its meetings. This is to justify the increased confiscation of homeless people’s belongings, which is already occurring, and will be implemented further under the new law.

Meanwhile, while strengthening the enforcement of public urination and defecation laws, the availability of public restrooms has gotten worse with the loss of the Center Street bathrooms.

Four of the five mayoral candidates I am aware of opposed the anti-homeless laws. Only City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli supported their implementation.

There are important initiatives on the November ballot in Bay Area cities to create more funding for affordable housing, with Berkeley’s Measure U! taxing developers who are benefiting from the housing boom. Oakland’s Measure JJ will strengthen the Just Cause laws in the face of more people being pushed out of their residences during the recent gentrification housing pressures.

Alameda County has a measure that will provide more funding for Housing First efforts and it needs a two-thirds vote to pass. Other Bay Area counties also have similar measures on the ballot.

This year, Berkeley city planner Michael Caplan talked to the City Council about putting housing up in People’s Park; but outgoing Mayor Tom Bates objected to it being brought up.

Housing activists speak to a local reporter about the little tent city they set up near the Berkeley Food and Housing Project in early October. Activist Michael Diehl (at right) is shown taking part in the demonstration. Photo by Carol Denney

Housing activists speak to a local reporter about the little tent city they set up near the Berkeley Food and Housing Project in early October. Activist Michael Diehl (sitting at right) is shown taking part in the demonstration. Photo by Carol Denney

 

Now there is talk that there are secret meetings being held to discuss putting student housing on the northeast corner of People’s Park. I know the University of California has other places it could house students. The Village off of Telegraph is being torn down for such a use, and there is an empty building on Clark Kerr campus that could house approximately 60 people.

In the 1960s, many people in Berkeley opposed UC’s expansion plans. But now we are seeing a much bigger expansion push by the university which is taking over much of downtown Berkeley, and still wants to expand into the Southside and grab parts of West Berkeley.

We have a city government that has sold itself out to this university development. Where is the outrage?

We People’s Park activists do want to reach out to students in our common cause of housing issues. But it must be done in such a way that we, the dispossessed, are not further pushed out of Berkeley and criminalized and labeled as having some kind of mental problem, or stigmatized for being the victims of capitalist developers and new tech industries. We are not “with it,” but tragically unhip — or, in the case of some of the talented street youth, maybe too tragically hip. Hell, we cannot collect and sell cans any more.

At present, there is a court case by the Alameda County district attorney against Land Action for using adverse possession laws to claim empty houses. There are still at least seven empty living units for every homeless person in Alameda County, which is why the system wants to shut down the squatters movement that I urge people to join. Homes Not Jails meets weekly in north Oakland’s Omni, if you want to get involved.

Go to candidate forums leading up to the election and let them know that the present housing situation is unacceptable. I urge you not only to support this paper but get involved and let the people in power know they cannot just give lip service to this issue, and that their present track record is miserable.

Many of the people I have known were barely hanging on before and are now losing their housing. That has also happened to me, personally. I worked as a community organizer and peer street outreach worker for 14 years for BOSS, but now I am jobless and have been homeless for three months.

As a client of homeless services myself, I see how desperately ineffective our current housing policies are and how they have failed to address the unfortunately growing problem of houselessness — a problem that cannot just be swept out of sight and out of mind.

Because I am still seen as the mayor of the streets, every day I hear the desperation of others who are living on the street, and I keep hoping somehow I can do something to help. I have helped get people off the streets over the years, and I was relatively good at it.

But now I feel I must appeal to your humanity and ask you to join us on October 15 in saying, “Enough is enough.” It will take a revival of street action and protest to improve the lives of those hit hard by this housing crisis.

Given my present circumstances, I am afraid there is very little that I can do but put together this housing crisis event, write this article, and try to give a voice to people very much threatened with losing what little voice they have.

Tags:

Writing for the Street Spirit: My 17 Year Journey

Writing for Street Spirit has awakened in me a sense of responsibility toward others. Street Spirit is a way for people silenced by big money and big media to have a voice.

Animal Friends: A Saving Grace for Homeless People

“I wrapped her in my jacket and promised I’d never let anybody hurt her again. And that’s my promise to her for the rest of her life. In my mind she’s a little angel that saved me as much as I saved her.”

A Testament to Street Spirit’s Justice Journalism

The game was rigged against the poor, but I will always relish the fact that Street Spirit took on the Oakland mayor and city council for their perverse assault on homeless recyclers. For me, that was hallowed ground. I will never regret the fact that we did not surrender that ground.

Tragic Death of Oakland Tenant Mary Jesus

Being evicted felt like the end of her life. As a disabled woman, she saw nothing ahead but a destitute life on the streets. She told a friend, “If I’m evicted tomorrow, I have no choice but to kill myself. I have no resources, no savings, no money, and nowhere to go.”

They Left Him to Die Like a Tramp on the Street

Life is sacred. It is not just an economic statistic when someone suffers and dies on the streets of our nation. It is some mother’s son, or daughter. It is a human being made in the image of God. It is a desecration of the sacred when that life is torn down.

Joy in the Midst of Sorrow in Santa Maria Orphanage

This amazing priest not only housed 300 orphaned children from the streets of Mexico City, but he also took care of 20 homeless elders in his own house and started a home for children dying of AIDS. Father Norman also ran a soup kitchen that fed many people in the village.