There is a lot that’s troubling about the mayor’s “Public Commons For Every One Initiative,” beginning with the name. I really regret that new-speak has made its way from our nation’s capital to Berkeley. A more accurate name for this initiative would be the “Get Homeless People Off the Streets of Berkeley Initiative.”
Of course such a naked avowal of intent is unseemly, so the initiative follows a pattern of sweetening the pill with provisions for increasing referrals to largely nonexistent services; stepped up activity by the Mobile Crisis team (often viewed on the street as an arm of the police); and no reduction in homeless services, without, however a commitment to any increase in funding for those services. There is still no daytime youth drop-in center in Berkeley and no detox.
At the core of this initiative is yet another push for new anti-homeless laws. The implication of the proposal is that there are currently not enough laws to do the job. The fact is that when the police get their marching orders they are perfectly capable of rousting just about anybody using threats, intimidation and the laws that are on the books right now.
The proposal calls for “creating consistent community standards for public behavior,” evoking images of Taliban-like patrols monitoring the conduct of citizens, although of course the only citizens whose conduct would be monitored would be the poor and the homeless.
The problematic street behaviors identified in the proposal are “prolonged sitting and smoking in front of businesses, yelling at people as they walk along the corridor, and/or selling or consuming drugs.” Selling or consuming drugs is already illegal. Smoking in the commercial corridor is likewise for all practical purposes illegal under the current ordinance that prohibits smoking within 20 feet of a doorway or air intake. That leaves “prolonged sitting” and “yelling at people.”
So seriously, are we going to have a “no yelling” ordinance? Are police going to be walking their beats with decibel meters? And really, is every happy-go-lucky yeller going to be cited or is it only going to be homeless yelling that gets the attention of the police. And do we really think this can be enforced without running afoul of the First Amendment? And have we forgotten that there is already a Berkeley ordinance that makes it unlawful “for any person to solicit another in any public place . . . ”in any manner which coerces, threatens, hounds, or intimidates the person solicited.” (BMC 13.37.020.)
If we agree a “no yelling” ordinance should be a nonstarter that leaves the terrible social problem of “prolonged sitting.” How exactly would this one work? Are we going to have police putting chalk marks on homeless people like the parking enforcement officers do on tires? And if the person moves does the clock start again?
We don’t need to go down this road. We’ve been here, we’ve done that, it doesn’t work, and it does us little credit. Criminalizing homelessness only increases the quotient of desperation in our community. It might be possible to sweep that desperation out of sight, but it will still be there to haunt us.
There is a better way.
Osha Neumann is a local attorney and artist.