A Column on Human Rights
by Carol Denney
Maybe it was a Christmas miracle. In the waning days of 2015, some funding was found in Berkeley to support an expansion of hours at two daytime drop-in centers, additional shelter beds through the holiday freeze, and a shuttle connecting the youth shelter to Youth Spirit Artworks, among other services for Berkeley’s poor and homeless population.
Public money that presumably has been standing around at the water cooler shooting the breeze was finally put to work. In Berkeley, the question is never, “does Berkeley have the money?” Berkeley ranks tenth for income inequality among U.S. cities, according to Bloomberg, the organization which computes income disparity figures for cities nationwide with more than 100,000 people.
Even adjusting for a sizeable student population doesn’t change the basic portrait of Berkeley as a playground for the 1%, slowly eroding what was once an impressively diverse and thriving small-town economy.
Only a few decades ago, easy jobs and cheap housing were everywhere in Berkeley. Anyone could meet basic needs on the minimum wage, which was $1.65. And while the University of California had just stopped being completely free, thanks to then-governor Ronald Reagan, the registration fee was still around fifty bucks.
There were boarding houses with shared kitchens, collective houses which always harbored a traveler or two on the couches in the living room, and tons of vacancies — so many that after UC Berkeley bulldozed the housing on the block that is now People’s Park in 1967, the UC regents wouldn’t vote them a dime to rebuild anything, leaving a rusty rebar-filled nuisance the community decided to collectively address.
This year, the same spirit came to the lawn of Old City Hall just before the holidays, in front of the building where the Berkeley City Council officially meets for city business, when an impressive network of people decided that waiting for the city to respond to a housing crisis and a homeless emergency was an exercise in eternity and decided to hold a sleep-in.
There had been some confusion over where to hold the sleep-in. A sleep-in earlier in the summer had been held at the downtown BART Plaza on Shattuck, while others suggested it should be at the steps of “new” City Hall on Milvia where the Berkeley City Councilmembers and the Mayor have their offices.
But Old City Hall on Martin Luther King still has some soft lawn despite the drought, and a sleep-in there would create greater public visibility for people headed into the council chambers to either support or object to new anti-homeless laws.
The vigil began on Monday, November 16, and continued overnight and throughout the next day, leading into an evening rally held just before the heated council debate on anti-homeless laws took place on Tuesday, November 17.
That was all that had been planned by the activists, but thanks largely to the initiative of homeless people, the sleep-in didn’t end the next morning. It grew into several weeks of relative safety for people otherwise being shoveled out of parks like trash or hustled off public streets by the merchant groups’ hired patrols.
The group of homeless people harbored at Old City Hall developed a functional government and leadership, communicative tools, and crafted “no drugs or alcohol” rules. They were better versed on their rights than the average bear.
When city officials finally came in and forced them out, the Liberty City protesters had made their point: as a group they were capable of taking care of themselves and each other. Liberty City was orderly, organized, and had so much community support there was often extra food, clothing and cold weather gear. Liberty City did what the City of Berkeley had refused for decades to do by simply creating a safe place where people can organize together for their own collective needs.
City Councilmember Linda Maio says she sees no contradiction in her role in crafting new anti-homeless “two square feet” laws and this midnight effort to “close the gaps” in services for the homeless and poor, and perhaps she is sincere.
Consider it a call to arms, those of you who are incensed at seeing people huddled in doorways in thirty degree weather, especially knowing the high percentage of people in any homeless population who are people of color, who are veterans, who are disabled, who are struggling with serious illnesses, and the growing number of homeless families represented even in the inadequate county-based counts.
To all those who stood up to be counted in support of people on the streets: thank you for your speeches, your letters, your poetry, your song, your theater, your grit, your stamina, your creativity and your fire. Thank you to the advocates, street warriors, clergy, cooperative city staff, residents, students, and workers who are slowly turning the large indifferent ship of criminalization around in Berkeley’s waters.
We may not represent all of Berkeley or the Bay Area, but we are able representatives of its conscience at its best.