A Column on Human Rights
by Carol Denney
A small news item showed up in The Berkeley Daily Planet around the same time as Mayor Tom Bates and his team methodically passed their law criminalizing having more than two square feet of belongings in public.
A local artist had all of his work stolen from a storage facility. He had property stolen as well, property which apparently showed up later for resale at Moe’s Books and Amoeba Music. But his original artworks, a colorful collection including unique prints and monographs (perhaps without the same immediate resale value), appear to be gone forever.
Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio of District One told the whole town all summer that homeless people “can put their stuff in parks, they can sleep in parks, they can hang out in parks,” to excuse her two-square-feet sidewalk law, generating a park-protective backlash that she used to grease the way to criminalizing more obvious attributes of homelessness with the usual sweeteners, such as non-existent bathrooms, storage and services.
People who attended the overflowing City Council hearing on November 17 were treated to a letter from the business (oh yes, it is a business) run by Jack Petranker called the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages which claimed their business (yes, it is a business) was down because of the terrible homeless people across the street whom they’re not sure, but might be stealing bicycles and are just so icky anyway.
This would be the new Buddhism, since the old Buddhism had a slightly different perspective on the poor. And it was especially interesting to those of us who have had the police explain that as a matter of policy, they are purposefully moving people from Shattuck Avenue down to Harold Way. I’m not suggesting this is a nefarious conspiracy. I’m just saying.
None of the anti-poor stuff was particularly original or unexpected. Criminalizing poverty has become a holiday tradition in Berkeley as predictable as Muzak in retail stores playing “Silver Bells.”
Some wondered if the official statements from the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development advising against criminalization measures would have any effect. They didn’t. People who criminalize poverty are great at characterizing it as a safety or public health measure, and the new burden it puts on grant writers is apparently not a compelling concern, even though it affects around seven million dollars of our HUD funding.
But the real public health crisis is the fact that our current housing policy — the result of 30 solid years of Mayor Tom Bates and, before that, his wife, former Mayor Loni Hancock’s complete neglect of affordable housing and homeless residents in Berkeley— presumes that having people sleeping in parks, under bushes, and tucked away as best they can under every overpass and in every alley, is just the way things are. Wave to your nearby homeless people in your park as you and your kids enjoy a picnic, brought to you by the developer-friendly policies of your local and state politicians.
But the neighbors are right. No park is designed as a campground, and the necessity of clean, safe parks is better understood in Berkeley than most places, although park maintenance is still woefully underfunded. None of them, by the way, spoke directly in favor of the criminalization elements in Maio’s proposal, just in favor of the same things any homeless person living unhappily in a park wants — safe surroundings, convenient, available bathrooms, and the enforcement of the laws we already have.
The campground of necessity should be the City Hall grounds, where there are no more green lawns to confound any more with tarps and tents, thanks to the drought, and where public officials have to meet the people their luxury-housing-only policies have affected.
The little news story about the local artist who lost all of his work was probably too small to capture much attention. This man’s artwork was in a fully paid U-Haul storage locker. Many artists use storage lockers after generating an inconvenient amount of canvases, especially those who work without dedicated studio space once plentiful in a now priced-out Bay Area.
But the item I read and re-read like a powerful book was the perfect morning-after to the sad council meeting in which hundreds of people brought compelling testimony to a council majority that ignored them.
A friend of mine’s roommate and close friend died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, and even more unexpectedly, her landlady told her to vacate the apartment at the end of that month, ostensibly for repairs which need a permit she has yet to pull.
My friend is a disabled senior on a fixed income in one of the few remaining rent-controlled apartments in Berkeley. Even if she can struggle through the difficulties that confront a disabled woman trying to establish many years of tenancy on paper and establish her right to stay, she faces living on a pittance, nursing every dollar, and hoping for the best.
Her top concern, when we speak, is making certain that her roommate’s artwork is preserved, and that the work be organized and recognized so that her roommate’s value as an artist is not overlooked. My friend is an artist herself, as am I, so there flows between us, even in a time of community and personal crisis, an understanding that some things are just the things you do because you care.
To the man who lost so much of his personal artwork in the U-Haul robbery, thank you for personalizing what our City Council majority (Max Anderson, Jesse Arreguin, and Kriss Worthington excepted) does not seem to grasp about the perils of storage even in the best of circumstances — even assuming the City of Berkeley gets itself into the business of trying to provide it, since right now no storage exists for people who can’t pay the cost. Because his story helps those who need to think about it crystallize one clear thought: nothing quite works so well as housing.