by Carol Denney
Berkeley’s new anti-poor laws come to the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday, June 30, 2015. That’s the bad news. The City Council can squabble over the wording, suggest amendments, or even vote them down, but several weeks ago, on March 17, they voted for this set of anti-homeless laws by a 6-3 majority, and indicated their willingness to make it a crime to use a blanket between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., to panhandle near a parking meter, and even to put down one’s belongings on or near a planter.
These restrictions target poor and homeless people. No one else struggles with carrying belongings and bedding with them wherever they go. No one else risks committing a crime by resting or covering up with an outlawed blanket. No one else risks losing everything they own if they even use a bathroom for a moment.
Instead of addressing the need for shelter beds, low-income housing, public campgrounds, a moratorium on luxury housing, and storage space for victims of skyrocketing evictions, the City Council majority might, at its meeting on June 30, add to Berkeley’s embarrassingly massive edifice of already existing anti-poor laws.
We can stop them. We did it decade after decade in the 1980s, the 1990s, and most recently, in the 2012 election when a ridiculous anti-sitting law went down to resounding defeat by Berkeley voters, a measure that had been “sweetened” with promises of funding for various charities and non-profits. But Berkeley citizens were not fooled.
Let’s stop them now. The best way to stop them is at the Berkeley City Council meeting on June 30. While an overwhelming majority of speakers at the council meeting on March 17 strongly opposed this battery of anti-homeless laws, the few voices that spoke in support of the new anti-poor laws all cited behavior which is already illegal: assault, drug use, smoke-free violations, etc. The City Council majority knows this. It is struggling to find the backbone to tell its wealthy campaign donors that pointlessly hassling the poor is not its top priority, but it can’t quite find the strength.
We have the facts. Consensus grows nationally on the need for a right to rest, and on the outrageous injustice of a housing policy completely dominated by wealthy developers poised to hollow out communities of color to build luxury housing. It is a tragedy when impoverished families end up struggling on the streets, and it is an obscenity when there are growing numbers of homeless students in our schools. Making it a crime to sleep in one’s car (already a Berkeley law) or set down one’s belongings, helps no one, not even the business community that supports the new anti-poor laws, because they will be as ineffective as the ten anti-poor laws we already have.
Demand common sense from the Berkeley City Council. These politicians are vulnerable to the truth. They know these laws embarrass our community, humiliate our police force, are a costly and ineffective approach to poverty, and send the dangerous message that targeting the poor is fine with them. But the voice loudest in their ears right now is the publicly funded business lobby known as the Downtown Berkeley Association, the same group responsible for the Ambassador private patrol group that assaulted two homeless men only two days after the Council passed the preliminary anti-poor proposals in March.
The Berkeley City Council needs to hear from you on Tuesday, June 30. Yes, you, the person whom they may never have seen at the public comment period (which starts at 7:00 p.m., at Center Street at Martin Luther King Way). Yes, you, the shop owner who recognizes that poor people have the right to exist in public space and nowhere else to go.
If you’re one of the people who live here and know that this is no way to address a housing crisis, the City Council needs to hear your voice. We can overturn their vote by referendum, we can challenge the extremity of the law in court, we can toss them off the council the next election.
But the best way to direct our efforts right now is to make sure they hear the truth at the council meeting on June 30. Affirm our community’s values by joining the City of Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission, the Homeless Task Force, the ACLU and dozens of religious and civil rights organizations in speaking out against the new anti-poor laws.
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Contact the Berkeley City Council
These are the Berkeley City Councilmembers who need to hear from you:
Mayor Tom Bates (510) 981-7100 email@example.com
District 1 Linda Maio (510) 981-7110 firstname.lastname@example.org
District 2 Darryl Moore (510) 981-7120 email@example.com
District 5 Laurie Capitelli (510) 981-7150 firstname.lastname@example.org
District 6 Susan Wengraf (510) 981-7160 email@example.com
District 8 Lori Droste (510) 981-7180 firstname.lastname@example.org