A portrait of Mayor Arreguín.
A portrait of Mayor Arreguín. (Grayson Wright)

Jesse Arreguín has been the Mayor of Berkeley since 2016. He ran on a platform of building more affordable housing, raising the minimum wage, and changing the city’s approach to addressing the homeless crisis. In the years since, he has been met with both praise and criticism: while some have embraced his leadership, others have argued that he is not as progressive on the issue of homelessness as he led his constituency to believe—such as with his yes vote on the council’s recent overnight RV parking ban.

Timothy Busby, who is homeless himself, sat down with the mayor to discuss Berkeley’s homeless policy. The mayor told Busby about some of his plans for the future, such as expanding homeless shelters and sanctioning homeless encampments. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

Tim Busby: I came here in 2016 when you took over and things were pretty wild. The downtown area had many transient young teenagers living on the street. It seems like there are fewer people on the street downtown now. Why is that?

Jesse Arreguín: Well, I think there are probably maybe less people
you see on the street downtown, but I think there are more people throughout Berkeley. There are more people living in recreational vehicles and the number of individuals who are facing homelessness has increased in Berkeley, as it has in the region.

We did initiate new programs— we’ve housed over 70 people at our navigation center since late last June, and in my first month in office we doubled the number of shelter beds and we have expanded the shelter program throughout my time in office. We’re looking at expanding those programs, with the goal of trying to provide shelter and ultimately permanent housing to every person who wants it, because that is the solution to ending homelessness. So we’ve made some progress, we’ve put some new programs in place, but it’s not enough.

TB: Do you feel like expanding shelters will decrease issues on the street?

JA: Yes. But not everyone wants to go into a shelter, and we need to recognize that as well. So we need to have a solution for those people who don’t want to move into shelters, and that’s going to be a sanctioned encampment. I don’t know where, but we have to find a location for a sanctioned encampment. I think the city should provide tents, I think the city should provide bed rolls. We’re working on a plan that we’re going to be presenting soon around all these different things.

‘We need a solution for people who don’t want to move into shelters, and that’s going to be a sanctioned encampment.’

For those people that are willing to go into a low-barrier shelter, we have to change the shelter model too to a low-barrier model that’s service-rich, and we have to change the shelter model so it’s focused on how we are connecting people to permanent housing, not just a place to sleep. We have to have all the different services there.

But we have to recognize that some people are going to sleep outside. Because we don’t have enough shelter,

and we don’t have enough permanent housing for people. And we have to recognize that that’s a reality. But we should make it better for them, and better for the broader community.

We shouldn’t let trash accumulate so that it’s unsafe for the people who are living there, and it’s unsafe for the surrounding community. So we need to better manage the people who are living on the streets and in encampments.

TB: So are you looking at adding new shelters or expanding the existing shelters?

JA: I think we need more locations. We need more beds. One of the questions we’re going to be having is should we make the shelter in our Old City Hall a year-round shelter, do we expand access to multiple floors.

TB: When we talk about “homelessness,” people usually think about the tents underneath bridges, or people who are struggling with severe mental illness. But there are all kinds of homeless people living in Berkeley. What are you going to do to spread awareness about the different types of people who are homeless?

JA: I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding and stigma around who are the homeless. I think we need to better educate the community. A lot of homeless people are senior citizens, disproportionately people of color, disproportionately people who have either serious health or mental health needs. So I think there is a real lack of understanding of who are the homeless and what their needs are, and that’s got to be a key piece of what the city does is better education around breaking down the barriers and stigma.

If you look statistically, the vast majority of people who are homeless are African American. If you look at the statistics, many of them are older, long-term chronically homeless, people who have been on the streets for many many years. Better educating the community would help everyone, because rather than be angry about the encampment at the end of my block, or the RV in front of my house, it provides some level of understanding and humanity to the situation.

Everyday I get emails around encampments and RVs and some
of the comments are, from my perspective, very insensitive, and very troubling and very shocking. Because I don’t think that represents who we are as a city.

TB: That’s one of the things I like about Berkeley is that there is a moral conscience. I’ve been in a lot of other cities that don’t have that.

JA: San Francisco is sweeping encampments all the time. The mayor set a goal of clearing all the encampments. That’s not what we do here. The city manager does remove encampments when things get really unsafe, and I have at times not agreed with her about those decisions, but essentially our existing policy allows sanctioned encampments throughout Berkeley, essentially.

It’s not codified anywhere, but there Here There encampment has been there for two years, and I have repeatedly said to the city manager that if they are doing a good job and keeping it clean and it’s well managed, why would we move them?

TB: There was an increase in homelessness in Berkeley between the 2015 PIT count and the 2017 count. Why was that?

JA: I think they changed they way they do the counting, but also there’s no question that we have seen an increase in unsheltered homelessness, and that’s due to the housing crisis. Rents are just going through the roof, and so there are more people who are ending up on the streets because they cannot afford to stay housed, and it’s just unacceptable.

We’re learning, and we’re doing a lot, but there’s a lot more that has to be done. And despite the new initiatives that we have done, it’s nowhere near enough to deal with the scale of the problem.

TB: What kind of federal budget does Berkeley have to work with?

JA: We get about $12 million a year in federal grants. We’re also going to reach out to Marc Benioff and Salesforce. We’re going to reach out to a number of businesses. It’s going to take a public-private partnership to have the scale of resources to be able to make that much of an impact.

The thing about Berkeley is we have about 2,000 people who are homeless in a given year. For the amount of money that a Marc Benioff or a Facebook to put into Berkeley, we could solve the problem. We have great nonprofits that are serving people every day. But at the end of the day what we’re going to need is a real clear and forward thinking plan around what is our approach to end homelessness in Berkeley. And we’re looking at trying to put that together. How much money would it take, how long would it take, what’s the path that gets us there.

TB: What are some of the new programs you’re working on?

JA: We’ll be implementing a mobile shower program in Berkeley in a couple weeks in south Berkeley west Berkeley and in the south side area, so we’ll have a mobile shower program.

We’re also looking at expanding [permanent] storage, so we’re looking at one storage facility which is a little over 50 units, and then were looking at expanding that as well as having a location in West Berkeley.

Ultimately, our focus is on permanent housing. We have a 142 unit project on the Berkeley Way parking lot in Downtown Berkeley that will provide a new men’s shelter on the ground floor. We’ll have a supportive services hub, dedicated beds for veterans, as well as permanent supportive housing and affordable housing. That project is moving forward. Another thing we have done is put $600,000 into several programs to prevent displacement. And we’re going to look at increasing that to $1 million this year. Some of the programs we funded include providing cash grants to people who are facing eviction, so they can stay housed, providing lawyers so that if you’re facing eviction you can defend yourself in court. And then we created what’s caused a flexible housing subsidies fund, which is a pot of money that we are able to use to provide funds for people who are trying to get housed.

We’ve raised well over $500,000 in private donations from businesses from the Kaiser corporation, which donated $150,000, for re-housing subsidies as part of our navigation center project.

We’re also looking at other foundations and business leaders to support the work we’re doing, because there are a lot of very successful executives in the Bay Area that have made a lot of money in the tech sector. Some of that money should go toward addressing our housing and homeless crisis to address the impacts of their growth, and their bringing new employees into the region and creating a housing crisis. They need to bear responsibility, and they need to be good corporate citizens.

In Dialogue is a recurring feature in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.

Timothy Busby is a homeless writer who lives in Berkeley. He writes from his past five years of experiences while living on the streets from New Orleans to Berkeley, and many cities in between.