A watercolor image of two people talking to each other and a third turned around.
The City of Berkeley recently put out a statement about their response to the crisis of homelessness. Berkeley Copwatch saw errors in their statement, and felt the need to set the record straight. (Clio Sady)

On September 16, the Office of the City Manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, wrote a “Letter to Neighbors on Homeless Response.” We feel an urgent need to respond with corrections so that our community can be accurately informed on what’s going on in our streets. We have already documented numerous mass evictions of unhoused communities in tents and vehicles, and we have reason to expect more of these mass evictions in the coming months. Many of these evictions are tied up in legal proceedings because of the City’s willingness to violate people’s constitutional rights in order to disappear houselessness. The City’s attempts to normalize and justify the displacement of our unhoused community members does not go unnoticed. The streets are watching.

The City Manager’s Office writes:

“With the 2018 passage of Measure P, our residents have generously voted to tax themselves to support these efforts, and the City Council provides additional general fund revenues to address homelessness.”

According to the Ballot Measure description, Measure P funds were intended to pay for “navigation centers, mental health support, rehousing and other services for the homeless, including homeless seniors and youth.” Of the funds raised by the Measure P tax, over $900,000 is going to the “Homeless Response Team’’ which includes overtime pay for two BPD officers ($57,920). The funds are also used for Public Works staff and a City Manager’s Office liaison to carry out “cleanups”—interventions where public works employees are intended to clean up garbage at encampments, but that often end in important personal belongings being destroyed—at various unhoused communities in Berkeley. We are concerned that this use of funds does not align with the spirit of this tax.

“Additionally, staff collected debris from encampments at least once each week, with a crew of two public works staff, a police officer and a staff person from the City Manager’s Office.”

This is false. At the RV and tent community by Eighth and Harrison Streets (just one of many places where the City stops for garbage pickup across Berkeley) Copwatch has documented three Public Works employees, two BPD Officers (sometimes three), and one-two City Manager’s Office staff present at these cleanups over the last five-plus months. 

“Collecting debris” is misleading. What the Letter calls “debris” here has often been people’s essential belongings. Frequently residents have not been present to object when their belongings are taken. In recent weeks, the City has even taken people’s things but then left alone the 1-3 trash piles that residents have made for pickup. (Residents at Eighth and Harrison Streets have requested a dumpster numerous times which the City has not provided. When a neighboring business offered their bins for use, the City took them away). We believe this misuse of taxpayer dollars amounts to harassment, intimidation, traumatization, and theft of belongings. 

“For example, we partnered with Caltrans and Alameda County to successfully close the large encampments at I-80 and University, conducting weekly outreach for three months and eventually moving 50 people into hotel and shelter beds.” 

Seabreeze was home to an estimated 90 people, accounting for the increases in population due to the displacement of other local encampments (such as the one at Gilman Street and the community at Ashby/Shellmound). Not all residents at Seabreeze were offered alternative shelter, and some could not access the shelter offered due to their disabilities. We’re still seeing the rippling impacts of this mass eviction for residents who have been separated from friends or chosen family, and who have had to move to ridiculously unsafe areas like Ashby West where they are unable to receive services. (Ashby West is entirely enclosed by freeway on and off ramps; within just weeks of moving there, one resident’s animal companion was killed by a passing car.)

“The Safe RV parking program will provide temporary parking accommodations for up to 40 households living in their RVs, and is designed to be as low barrier as possible.” 

The opening of this Safe Parking site is already being leveraged as an excuse to enforce parking regulations that make it drastically more difficult to live in a vehicle in Berkeley. The same 2019 Berkeley Point-In-Time count that the City Manager cites in her letter also estimated that at least 161 RVs and 157 cars/vans were used as vehicle homes in Berkeley. Those who are not among the 40 RVs who park at the Safe Parking site will be subject to parking enforcement: changing their location every 72 hours, getting their home towed for expired tags, not being able to park from 2:00 to 5:00 a.m., and in some areas, not being able to park their oversized vehicles at all. Instead of persecution, the City could be part of a solution: funding efforts to help residents get registered and to pass smog checks, providing city dumpsters for curbside communities that request them, and directing funding and personnel to help—not hurt—poor people.

“…our values as a compassionate city that welcomes people of all backgrounds means that we treat our unhoused individuals with respect and dignity.”

This statement is beautiful, however it rings hollow in the context of Berkeley’s failure to provide accessible and dignified resources and shelter for residents with nowhere to go. Mental health, PTSD, and ADA violations are used to justify criminalization of unsheltered people. We are failing to provide compassion and care to our most vulnerable and economically precarious community members: our aging population and people living with physical, mental health, and cognitive disabilities.

For more information, we recommend speaking directly to advocates, and most importantly, our unhoused neighbors to find out what’s really going on.

Get active. Be aware. Refuse to be abused.

Berkeley Copwatch is an all-volunteer organization with the goal to reduce police violence through direct observation and holding police accountable for their actions. Formed in 1990, they seek to educate the public about their rights, police conduct in the Berkeley community and issues related to the role of police in our society at large. For more information visit www.berkeleycopwatch.org.