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