Since the January closure of People’s Park, advocates have moved mutual aid to the sidewalk

The entrance to the People’s Free Store, which sits in the shadow of UC Berkeley’s perimeter around People’s Park. (Daniel Hennessy)

At the threshold of the People’s Free Store, there is a small, brown welcome mat. The mat itself is unremarkable, but its faded imprint feels significant in context. Not half of a block away, double-stacked shipping containers, private security guards, high-tech cameras, and razor wire barricade people from entering People’s Park. They loom large and intimidating to passersby who walk in their shadow.

The message from the University of California is clear. Keep out.

And yet, the welcome mat and small mutual aid outpost behind it are distinctly approachable. Surrounded by colorful art, handwritten signs, and memorials to members of the community, the People’s Free Store passes along an entirely different message to residents of Southside. Under the watchful gaze of the university’s security infrastructure, the Free Store welcomes its neighbors, imploring them to come in and get what they need.

At the beginning of January, the university moved in and seized control of the historic green space. In the turmoil that followed, UC officials insisted that they had taken appropriate steps to support those living in and around the park, including providing transitional housing, case management, and access to a daytime drop-in site.

Despite these assurances, members of the community knew that a significant gap remained for the immediate needs of their neighbors. So they filled it.

“The community is not going away,” said People’s Park community member Rico Marisol, “It’s about providing safe spaces for community needs.”

The People’s Free Store, a mutual aid center that populates a small triangle of land at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way, was built just days after the closure of the park. In the weeks that followed, organizers worked to create a space where people could stay dry, get warm, eat food, and access harm reduction supplies.

During a particularly wet February, the Free Store put out calls on Instagram for wet weather gear, and served as a distribution point for jackets, tarps, and other necessities.

According to Marisol, they and other organizers kept the store open 24 hours a day, sometimes spending the night there to ensure they didn’t miss anyone who needed supplies. By contrast, the university-sponsored Berkeley Sacred Rest Drop-in-Center is open from 9:30AM to 5:30PM Monday through Friday.

As members of the People’s Park community continue to do this work, the university is struggling to shore up its plans for the promised permanent supportive housing at the park.

“While construction of the project’s two urgently needed housing facilities…can only proceed once pending legal issues are inevitably resolved, the courts have repeatedly affirmed the university’s ability to enforce the site’s legal status as a closed construction zone,” read an email sent to students from Chancellor Christ announcing the closure of the park.

But details remain uncertain, particularly for the supportive housing. Resources for Community Development (RCD), once slated to develop the project, pulled up stakes last year to focus its efforts on other sites. In a prepared statement, RCD did not provide specifics on its decision, though a spokesperson later told Berkeleyside that that the court case complicated project approval. Since then, the university has not announced another developer partner, though officials have said they will find one once the court case is resolved.

The case, which was taken up by the California Supreme Court last May, focuses on an environmental review that opponents say the UC neglected to conduct appropriately. Based upon a lower court’s decision, construction was ordered to be halted last February and will not commence again until the Supreme Court makes a decision. As of this writing, there is no indication by the court as to when that will happen.

One thing that is for sure, it will be months if not years before supportive housing is built at People’s Park. In the meantime, mutual aid will remain a crucial source of support for a number of Southside residents.

Even as the weather gets warmer and the need for a warming shelter wanes, organizers insist that there will be a continued, if scaled back, presence at the People’s Free Store. Marisol noted that it will remain a place where members of the community can access harm reduction supplies and occasional hot meals.

Regardless of how long the Free Store remains in its current state, its place in the story of People’s Park is sealed. Standing at the threshold of the Store, looking at the “welcome” stamped across the mat, it’s hard not to feel like that statement in itself is an act of resistance. Welcome, come in, you are wanted. 

Daniel Hennessy (he/him) is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he primarily writes about issues related to housing. Prior to going back to school, he spent years working in eviction disruption up and down the West Coast.