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 email@example.com.