A Column on Human Rights
by Carol Denney
On March 17, two key leaders of Berkeley’s YMCA attended the City Council meeting to address the council regarding Berkeley’s “Community Commercial Sidewalks and Public Spaces” proposal, a new raft of anti-homeless laws including a suggested law which would make it a crime to use a blanket or bedding between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.
YMCA Executive Director Hae Won Rhow and Albert Chan, senior membership director of Berkeley’s YMCA, attended the council meeting. Chan spoke out for the proposed anti-homeless laws.
Nobody knows yet what form the final legislation will take. Berkeley City Manager Christine Daniel just quit, and the reworked ordinances might not pass the council at all, although they seem to have the votes.
But the Berkeley City Council is entitled to consider the YMCA’s pointed comments that evening as being in favor of new anti-homeless laws.
Chan identified himself as a YMCA employee, and in mentioning the 9,000 households served by the YMCA, he blamed the presence of homeless people as the reason that YMCA members are “frightful” (sic) of coming downtown.
“I want to talk to you about safety,” he stated, citing a violent incident which had occurred on the Post Office steps.
There is no need to criminalize already criminal behavior, so this example, like many of the examples offered by the handful in favor of the anti-homeless proposal, was an odd choice to use to promote more criminalization targeting homeless people and their belongings.
The anti-homeless law supporters that night who mentioned smoking, or violence, or threatening behavior need only call the police and report criminal behavior when they observe it.
But Mr. Chan is like a lot of business people in downtown Berkeley. It is easier to blame homeless and poor people than actually work in cooperative ways to reduce threatening and dangerous behavior — even behavior sometimes committed by YMCA staff and clientele.
“Phillip,” a lifeguard at the YMCA, takes a “vape” break right by the front entrance in the accompanying photo. He knew nothing of the smoking regulation in the commercial district or the recent law which was altered to include electronic cigarettes, nor had the YMCA supervisory staff informed him about it.
At least two residents at the YMCA’s hotel also were told by management to smoke right by their exit door, despite this being a violation of Berkeley’s law and a guaranteed way to expose all the YMCA members coming and going to classes or working out.
The two YMCA staff members behind the counter the day this photograph was taken also knew nothing about Berkeley’s commercial districts law, insisting that smoking a few feet from a doorway was still the operative regulation.
And they are not alone. The security guard at the next door Social Security office tells clients to smoke right outside on the sidewalk, as does the crew at nearby First Response. The AC Transit bus drivers typically take their smoke break in front of the Shattuck Hotel by their buses.
The City of Berkeley has abandoned the once-vigorous efforts to ensure signage and promote education about the current regulations, leaving in place popular mythology that poor and homeless people are the bulk of the smoking violators downtown, which is easy to disprove with a short stroll through the streets.
The city’s current smoking regulations are a moving target which almost no one, including the police, can accurately describe, regulations which are enforced disproportionately against the poor.
Let’s be clear. Chan, the YMCA spokesperson, could have addressed the general safety issue in the downtown during the general public comment period. But he and YMCA Executive Director Hae Won Rhow made a decision to attend and to speak directly to Item 19 on the March 17 agenda: the “Community Commercial Sidewalks and Public Spaces.”
This proposal is opposed by the ACLU and more than 60 religious leaders and local civil rights organizations as likely to be used in a discriminatory fashion.
Chan could have clarified that he was not speaking as a YMCA representative, but he stated his job title quite clearly. The Berkeley City Council was treated to the very strong impression that not only the YMCA leadership, but the YMCA membership as well, supports new anti-homeless laws which, in fact, do nothing to improve public safety.
Executive Director Hae Won Rhow responded to an email about the YMCA’s show of support for the proposed legislation: “I’m sorry to hear that our statements about the increase of concerns around harassment and sanitation was seen as anti-homeless. It’s quite the opposite. We believe that we need to address issues of behavior and health with all that don’t follow them — we see it with affluent teenagers from Berkeley HS to even our own members. That is what we wanted to share and that we need help with communication and with appropriate consequences. We don’t label anyone as a problem, but we only wanted to state that we are seeing an increase in the issues.”
But Chan didn’t mention any group except the homeless in his testimony to the City Council on March 17. He didn’t mention teenagers, or issues with their own membership. “Appropriate consequences” are an inappropriate way to describe criminalizing the attributes of homelessness in a town seemingly dedicated to having less low-income housing than the community needs. And “sanitation,” a respectable issue to be sure, is in no way addressed by criminalizing panhandling or blankets and bedding.
Criminalization of homelessness is costly, ineffective and inhumane. A majority of Berkeley voters know this, and voted down the City Council’s most recent effort to add to an already embarrassingly high pile of Berkeley anti-homeless laws, when they defeated an absurd anti-sitting law in 2012.
The Peace and Justice Commission, the ACLU, and Berkeley’s Homeless Task Force oppose the new laws, and odds are strong that a majority of YMCA members can be counted on to care deeply about resolving homelessness, not making homeless and poor people more miserable and burdened than they already are with bewildering restrictions with which it is impossible to comply.
But a Berkeley City Council majority led by Mayor Tom Bates and District 1 representative Linda Maio seems determined to be crowned the city with the most anti-homeless laws statewide.
The YMCA has so far refused to send a letter clarifying their stand on the new anti-homeless laws. YMCA President Fran Gallati and Executive Director Hae Won Rhow imply that they do not support an anti-homeless agenda, but we are entitled to assume as a community what the Berkeley City Council must assume: that Albert Chan and Hae Won Rhow were at the City Council on March 17 to support the anti-homeless laws until they produce a letter or statement saying otherwise.
If you are a YMCA member, please let the YMCA leadership know you are concerned about their support for this specific piece of legislation, and would like the YMCA, if it chooses to cheerlead politically, to support honest efforts to help the poor by increasing low-income housing through a moratorium on luxury housing in Berkeley, a free public campground, and a commitment to replacing the low-income housing that the City has, decade after decade, systematically converted to high-end housing.
The YMCA, if it wishes to participate politically, is most welcome to do so. But right now it has put itself in a difficult posture. No one accidentally finds themselves speaking specifically to item 19 on the Berkeley City Council agenda on March 17. And if the YMCA spoke out in favor of anti-homeless legislation somehow by accident, its leaders should, as a matter of course and for the community’s sake, clarify their position.