Page One

‘Commons for Everyone’ Excludes Homeless, Some Charge

By Judith Scherr
Friday March 16, 2007

Mayor Tom Bates’ proposal to crack down on people engaged in “prolonged sitting” or yelling in public spaces near businesses got Berkeley City Council approval (5-2-1) in concept Tuesday night—and sharp condemnation from the several dozen residents who came to the meeting to demand that the council not criminalize homelessness and drug addiction. 

Councilmembers Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington voted against the plan the mayor calls the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative; Council-member Max Anderson abstained. 

“The idea is to not penalize any particular group,” Bates said at the meeting. “We need to deal with the social deterioration on our streets.”  

The proposal—which points to homeless, acting-out and loitering people as a major factor in business decline—would create a consistent set of laws throughout the city’s commercial districts and provide police with “clear enforcement mechanisms” to address violations, such as yelling, smoking and selling drugs near businesses.  

A key goal, according to the Commons for Everyone staff report, would be keeping sidewalks “free from obstruction.”  

Noting there is presently no funding source for the measure, Bates underscored that the plan is to balance police enforcement with services that would include increased mental health assistance, cleaner sidewalks and a program to channel donations to nonprofits rather than panhandlers.  

With council approval, Bates’ proposal, championed by the Chamber of Commerce, now goes for refinement to the city manager, city staff and various commissions before coming back to the council in May with more specific recommendations. 

Most the public speakers addressing the council before the vote expressed strong opposition to the measure. 

“Public Commons for Every-one—How Orweillan doublespeak can you get?” asked Bob MacLaren.  

Referring to people who hang out on the streets, MacLaren said: “They’re people too. They have the light of the Christ within them.” 

Another speaker who did not give her name also used a religious reference: “Jesus Christ was homeless all his life,” she said. “How the fuck are you going to say it’s against the law to be homeless. Do you really want that power?” 

Speaking after her was attorney Osha Neumann who often represents homeless and impoverished people. “I prefer the language we just heard to the pretentious and deceptive language of the Public Commons for Everyone,” he said. “It’s not fair and balanced to give somebody a hug and then smack ‘em. It’s not fair and balanced to offer people a few services then smack them with criminalization.” 

Police enforcement causes desperation among the targeted groups, Neumann said, further noting in a letter to the council [reprinted in full on page 9] that selling drugs and smoking within 20 feet of businesses is already illegal.  

Enforcement may violate First Amendment rights, he wrote, asking: “Are police going to be walking their beats with decibel meters?”  

As for “prolonged sitting,” Neumann wrote: “Are we going to have police putting chalk marks on homeless people like the parking enforcement officers do on tires?” 

By signaling out the homeless and mentally ill, the proposal attacks minority populations, Michael Diehl, chair of the Mental Health Commission, told the council. “It’s a civil rights issue,” he said. 

Speaking in opposition to the proposal for the Berkeley-Albany-Richmond-Kensington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, attorney Jim Chanin said the organization “opposes laws that criminalize poverty.”  

He further contended: “The deterioration of Telegraph Avenue has little to do with homeless people asking for money.” 

The business community disagreed. Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, praised the proposal’s two-pronged mental health service-police enforcement approach and underscored the measure’s aim at protecting the business community. 

“The city’s public streets are the front doors for business owners,” she said. “We do not approve of inappropriate street behavior as the business community, and we do not accept foul and abusive language and aggressive behavior.” 

Downtown business owner Alan Kropp also weighed in saying the proposal “will help to make a safe, humane experience for someone who needs help if they’re looking for food or housing; and it’s a safe and humane way for somebody who’s visiting downtown if they want a good shopping, dining or theater experience.” 

Also supporting the measure, Tom Gorham told the council that it took the “stick” approach to get him off drugs and alcohol and into treatment. “It took a trip to the county jail to get sober enough to see people were trying to help me,” he said. 

Councilmembers supporting Bates’ plan pointed to the success of Options for Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment program, some of whose clients come through court referrals. “I’ve been to many Options graduations,” said Councilmember Linda Maio. “[Options] saves people’s lives.” 

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli agreed, saying for some people a “carrot” approach works and for others you need “a bit of a stick.” Referring to a court program, where people can choose between treatment or jail, he noted many chose treatment and some get off drugs as a consequence. 

Councilmember Max Anderson agreed – in part. “The programs lauded tonight are worthy of encouragement,” he said. Options for Recovery, however, “is successful without draconian laws on the books.” 

Calling the proposal a diversion from doing the real work needed to help small business, Worthington said that one solution to drug and alcohol problems would be “detox on demand” in Berkeley. And installation of port-a-potties would resolve the problem of public urination and defecation, he said. 

Worthington further vowed that, if the ordinance passed in May, “Those laws are not going to go into effect.” Berkeley progressives will gather the signatures needed to stop “another oppressive attack on homeless people,” he said.