How to Stop the City of Berkeley’s Criminalization of the Homeless

One of the most popular pieces of advice to incoming students concerns walking around People’s Park and Shattuck Avenue, two of the most popular homeless encampment areas. While some claim that “no story of Berkeley is complete without the story of the homeless, whose presence has become familiar to residents,” many avoid these areas because they wish to avoid either the homeless themselves, their belongings (e.g. the sight and spread of their tattered blankets) or their companions (e.g. cats, dogs and other pets). Particularly on Shattuck Avenue, the downtown area where many local stores and restaurants are located, business owners express resentment, claiming that the homeless people have affected their daily operations. They have urged the city government to do something.

There have been recent attempts. The City of Berkeley proposed a controversial ballot measure to ban anyone from sitting or lying at the sidewalks during the day through Measure S, otherwise known as Civil Sidewalkers, in late November 2012. First-time violators would face a penalty of $75 or community service, while subsequent violations could be charged as misdemeanors. Measure S was voted down by a majority of Berkeley voters.

The message is clear: as the measure would have forbidden the basic activities of the homeless in commercial areas, it was really aimed at reducing the visible signs of homelessness. As advocates of the measure claimed, “living on the street is unhealthy, and sends people into a downward spiral” while “keeping shoppers away and hurting local merchants.” In their opinion, the assumed benefits of Measure S were to improve the quality of life of the homeless community by transferring them to the appropriate social services and to increase economic activity of local merchants in the area.

But how likely are policies such as Measure S able to accomplish what they are intended to? According to an article published by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the UC Berkeley’s School of Law, “Will Berkeley’s ‘Measure S’ increase economic activity and improve services to homeless people,” the benefits are “neither proven nor promising.” Indeed, a similar sit/lie law, passed in San Francisco, was proved to be a failure. According to a recent report from the City Hall Fellows, the measure is radically ineffective in dissuading the city’s homeless from sitting on pavements, and it poses an extra cost to the police force, whose time could probably be better spent on inspecting other activities.

Although voters in a city that is no stranger to political movements said “no” to Measure S, Berkeley is far from having ended anti-homeless efforts by the city government. The victory for homeless rights advocates has proved extremely short-lived: Councilmember Jesse Arreguín has proposed a new series of actions to target the homeless community, dubbed the “Compassionate Sidewalks Plan.” The Compassionate Sidewalks Plan convenes a group of representatives to develop new regulations and law enforcement strategies based on consensus. But certain residents and community activists speculate that this plan is simply a masked version of Measure S, only this time more stakeholders—community members and government officials but not homeless people – are included in drafting a new measure.

Should the homeless be wiped off the streets of Berkeley simply because their appearance seems to deter shoppers and threaten the city’s image? At the very least, I believe, decisions about public space should not be weighted solely in favor of profit.

It is possible that the Compassionate Sidewalks measure would start a trend of criminalization and discrimination in Berkeley against those who are in need. The danger is that if any such measure was passed, the trend would officially be established, could be hard to terminate, and potentially lead to laws that further target homelessness and associated activities (e.g. cooking and congregating in public). Even if the policy successfully displaced the homeless community from the city’s surface, they will only migrate from one place to another, unseen from public view. In the absolute worst case, a sense of alienation is created among the needy, which further intensifies the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Compassionate Sidewalks is a thinly veiled attempt to hide homelessness, and it undermines efforts that could have addressed the true roots of the problem. Therefore, for incoming students, my alternative piece of advice would be to learn about the transient population first-hand instead of passively consuming formulated opinions about homelessness. A good start would be to volunteer with a student group like the Suitcase Clinic, or to visit People’s Park and Shattuck Avenue and talk to the homeless face to face instead of shying away uncritically.

Allista Cheung is an undergraduate student in Economics and City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at

From Project to Pre-Fab: A Window into Future Affordable Housing

Affordable housing in the United States echoes a continuously changing ideology of the most effective, safe, and desirable way to house the poorest and most marginalized people of our society. In the 1960s, the idea was that affordable housing had to first and foremost accommodate immense numbers of people. Subsequent massive projects such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago were constructed. It was later realized that such poorly designed and enormous publicly run housing projects led to widespread crime and danger. During the next phase, affordable housing was built on a much smaller scale, managed by private developers, and not segregated from more well-off neighborhoods. While this type of lower density housing harbors a much more hospitable environment, it cannot accommodate the growing number of poor Americans.

The most recent question surrounding affordable housing is how to construct quality, well-managed, safe, publically funded housing for the poor in the mass quantities that are needed to make a dent in homelessness.

The Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), based in Downtown Los Angeles, has attempted to tackle this question. Skid Row is an area in downtown Los Angeles that contains the highest concentration of homeless people in the United States. Streets are lined with cardboard, shopping carts, tents, and belongings. SRHT strives to assist the 3,000-6,000 people living on these streets by constructing affordable and desirable housing. The Star Apartments, the first pre-fabricated affordable housing complex, are an effort to construct a larger scale, well-designed project at minimal cost and construction time. The Star Apartments will cost $20.5 million and will consist of 102 units built in a factory and then stacked on site in just over a month. According to the Los Angeles Times, the project, designed by renowned architect Michael Maltzan, will include basketball courts, art centers, community gardens and green space. Star Apartments will serve the entire Skid Row community through services and public spaces. Residents will pay 30% of their income and will not be mandated to attend any counseling or social services. The Skid Row Housing Trust advocates for the so-called “housing first” model, which argues that the most effective way to deal with homelessness is to provide sustainable housing as quickly as possible, regardless of the level of stability of the resident.

Due to this unconventional model, Star Apartments have been the subject of controversy. Residents of the Star Apartments do not have to prove that they are on “the right path,” because “housing first” prescribes that once homeless people have housing, improvement and stability will follow. Opponents, such as conservative radio talk show host John Carlson, call such projects “bunks for drunks” and argue that in order to make a real difference in homelessness, residents need to be mandated to stop “risky behavior” and take proactive steps to better their life.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of “housing first” programs in reducing chronic homelessness and health care costs. Costs of individuals living in housing first programs were compared with those on the waitlist for the same type of housing but who were still living on the streets. Including housing expenses, public service costs decreased from $4066 to $2449 per person per month after a twelve-month period. This study thus demonstrates that it is actually cheaper to provide subsidized permanent housing for the chronic homeless than to pay for public health and safety services. Give the homeless homes, and the reduction of drug use is secondary to the numerous benefits that come with safe, sanitary, and sustainable shelter.

Critics of the Star Apartments might also take issue with the relatively low capacity of the project. However, regardless of its size, this well-designed building has the potential to completely change an entire community. A mixed-use housing project provides the space for people of the whole neighborhood to collaborate and build relationships. While it may house fewer people than a Cabrini-Green or a Pruitt-Igoe, it has the potential to positively affect the lives of many more.

In addition, others might claim that though the project will attempt to nurture a safe environment, it is still located on 6th and Maple; residents will still live in the heart of Skid Row and it will be nearly impossible to escape its lifestyle. But to argue that a project should be built in a different region is to completely give up on Skid Row and settle that it will never be a productive or family-conducive community.

In order to understand why it is important that Star Apartments is located in Skid Row, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the area. In the documentary Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home, director Thomas Q. Napper, attempts to justly frame the Skid Row community and the issues it faces. The documentary demonstrates that even though crime and drugs are rampant, the region has also nurtured a unique, lasting sense of community. Kevin “KK” Cohen, who is profiled in the film, lived on Skid Row for 14 years and became the fiancée and protector of Lee Anne Leven, an older, mentally ill, hunched-over Skid Row native. KK claims: “I would defend her with my life, believe that, dude. I would die behind this little lady right here.” Skid Row has fostered this unique and compelling relationship. I believe that while it is important not to isolate the poor from urban life, it is just as essential that longstanding neighborhoods are not abandoned because of negative outsider conceptions.

The Star Apartments could be the model for the future of affordable housing. However, as Mike Alviderez, the Executive Director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, told the L.A. Times,  “We’re not going to be able to build our way out of homelessness.” Pre-fab affordable housing must not be seen as a solution for homelessness but as a way for those who are desperately poor to begin to climb out of poverty. It is one step in the mitigation of homelessness, just as pre-fab affordable housing can be viewed as one phase in the United States affordable housing timeline.

Hannah Squier is a second year Civil and Environmental Engineering major at UC Berkeley. She is interested in the way engineering and urban planning intersect to solve social and systemic injustices. Feel free to contact her at

Beijing Homeless

Things change when there is no place to go. A city loses itself when the gravitational force on metros, buses and people loses its hold. Before opting out, I was living in a nice place, working for a good office, and spending time with close friends. From the apartment at Sihui Station to the office on Tuanjihue Lu; from the diplomatic areas of Dongzhimen to the alley bars of Gulou, work life and personal life revolved around design scenes, family-style meals, and group outings. This is how I interacted with the city, and this is how the city interacted with me. But once these things, these places, and these people were gone, Beijing became something less familiar.

Maybe I had watched Into the Wild one too many times. Maybe I thought I was a character in a Knut Hamsun novel. Or maybe it was that I had experienced a broken heart. But as my lease at the Gemdale Plaza next to Line 1 came to an end, I filled a backpack, dropped my luggage off at a friend’s house, and spent the next 8 months looking for the best places for personal displacement. I didn’t know where I was headed, or if being headed anywhere made much sense. All I wanted was nowhere, and I wanted it wherever I could find it.

Beijing is a cold city in more ways than one. The winter of 2012 was no exception. The wide-open spaces created an impersonal landscape of gray brick and white barriers. Low-density blocks the size of airport runways made my jacket feel thinner, as exhalation would come to obstruct my vision. Within these vast openings would sometimes sit a bench, isolated and prominent, as if drawing attention to itself just by existing. I began to find comfort in the outskirts. I would seek out the corners and retreat into the narrowness. The hutongs were mazes, and mazes are indeed fun when time is irrelevant. Once, I would get frustrated when I ended up in the wrong side street to meet friends at an obscure pool hall. Now, my frustration applied itself to a stopping point.

Physical movement became more necessary as the temperature ticked downward. I sometimes found myself on the periphery, running in place, waiting for 10am, when the nearest heated space, known as a shopping mall, would open its doors. To me, malls were giant mixed-use monstrosities, and I found myself in them more often than not, resting, reading, and writing. The couches were more comfortable than the concrete, and the clean bathroom stalls made napping manageable. Laowài were welcome there, and I took full advantage.

I even spent a few nights in the biggest, freest hotel in Beijing: Foster’s Capital Airport.

I spent little time in parks with their controlled access points and more time under overpasses, as they felt freer and at the same time more private. When the ring roads intersected a highway, the massive looping exits created pockets and barricades. Businesses operated along the roads running underneath the 8-lane traffic several meters above. Medians were brick islands with a width of two lanes. Where the overhead’s giant concrete columns touched down on these islands, a good place for leaning was born. Nearby, tunnels could be found that gave pedestrians and cyclists a means of punching through the vehicular onslaught. It is within these negative spaces that city equipment was stored and traces of graffiti could be discerned. Beyond the sound of revving engines and blaring horns, it was a place of burnt wood and loneliness. Sometimes, I would find jackets and blankets, a pile of flattened cardboard boxes, a lighter, a cup. And no one else.

In order to bypass the roads, the highways, and the noise that accompanied them, I would sometimes travel the city canals and walk for miles and miles. Like the tunnels and grooves, I felt safe and off-the-grid, with the benefit of a de-saturated sky above me. I went to places I had never been, and I spent time in places that I had once enjoyed with the people that I used to know. It was at this old sky bridge where a pointless conversation had taken place, a time of eye contact, winter jackets, and the backsides of green traffic signs. But my memories were fading, and it became harder to figure out what was so special about that damn sky bridge.

By the spring, I was no longer serving drinks and cleaning bathrooms in exchange for a bed at the local hostel. I had removed myself from the couches of generous friends. I had left my new job of only 3 months, and the convenience of their office furniture. My nights were now spent on patches of grass between sidewalks and tower plinths. Long-haired and bearded, I continued walking the city, often without an idea of where I was. Beijing is not known for way-finding, so I followed whatever way I could find. I would hike along railroad tracks, watching vendors sell clothing, books, and chuanr. They never noticed me, and I never minded. The city was now blooming, and the large setbacks became small green parks with foliage-draped benches and places for locals to nap and water the flowers. It barely rained, and when it did, I found the nearest awning, metro station, or mall. I was now used to it all.

By the fall, I had made it into Mumbai, India with a void work visa. My distaste for Beijing was at an all-time high. I had championed Beijing the previous year, only to become too intimate with its reality as compared with my own. Everything I had loved about the city was associated with and based upon everything I had now lost. Through my own stupidity, I had broken, ruined, and separated myself from every personal and professional association that I had obtained while living in the city as an architect. Now the city was lacking because I myself was lacking.

Beijing became a barren wasteland, and my understanding of cities had changed. A city can be many things: It can be clean. It can be dirty. It can be pleasant or stressful. It can have a public transportation system and a logical road network or be lost within chaos. It can feel as if home, or it can resemble something foreign. But without the stability of relationship, a point of contact, with a person, a job, a bed, the reference is lost, the meaning is void. Without this framework, the city bleeds away into empty materials and emptier buildings, an ocean of grayscale pavement, broken up by stoic park benches. Things change when we have no place to go. Or we have no place to go because things change. Either way, as Steven Wright once said: Anywhere is walking distance if you’ve got the time.

Brad Hooks is an architect who graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He has worked for ATOL Architects in Shanghai, URBANUS Architecture & Design in Beijing, and Studio Mumbai Architects in Alibag, among others. He now lives and works in Ahmedabad, India. You can reach him at