Public Comment

An Open Letter to Mayor Bates

By Carlos Rivas
Friday March 23, 2007

Dear Mayor, 

I am writing in response to this morning’s speaker panel broadcast on KPFA’s Morning Show where you and other panel members discussed concerns around the plan you are proposing, known as “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative.”  

I understand that your office is under pressure from the business community to address the issue of homelessness in the commercial corridors. The business community likely sees the homeless community on Telegraph and Shattuck as a barrier to commercial success and as a primary cause for their deficient sales. While I would agree that homelessness may be impacting the commercial viability of Downtown Berkeley, our primary concern should be protecting the rights and enhancing the well-being of all our citizens: the homeless, families, patrons, and business owners alike. With all of these people in mind, I believe it is your office’s obligation to propose a plan that would address the problem of homelessness in a comprehensive and compassionate manner that benefits all parties concerned.  

First, it should be recognized that meeting the needs of the homeless in Berkeley must be the primary objective. As an employee of a local non-profit community clinic in Berkeley, it has become evident that the root of the problem of homelessness is lack of support services (or an inability to access those services) and a breakdown of traditional support networks. The homeless have fallen through the cracks of the traditional support systems that the rest of us depend on to keep us healthy and housed in our daily lives. The instability due to poor health care, broken families, poor educational opportunities, poverty, and other socio-economic factors have led them to living on the street. If we address these failures in health care, family cohesion, and support services, we will address the problem of homelessness at its source. Any other attempt to address homelessness through increased police efforts to physically remove the homeless from the commercial corridors will only move the problem out of plain sight. Reducing the visibility of homelessness in Berkeley could potentially make the problem worse, making it more difficult for support service workers to communicate with the communities they are trying to serve. It will also likely lead to an escalation in conflict between the homeless and the Berkeley Police. If the homeless population feels further isolated and desperate it could also lead to an increase in crime.  

Second, it should be noted that there are many factors that may be impairing Berkeley businesses on Telegraph and Shattuck and addressing any of them may have a positive impact on sales equal to or greater than homelessness. As a former UC Berkeley student, the first problem that comes to mind is a lack of businesses that target the student population. University students are generally young, low-income, and technologically savvy. Businesses that fail to properly target this large population will suffer and their loss should not be mourned. Market forces should take course and allow for the introduction of businesses that are appropriate for the local audience. Another large problem is accessibility, with Telegraph particularly in mind. The streets of Berkeley are congested and parking is limited. Improving bicycle, pedestrian, and public transportation access and increasing parking availability may greatly improve accessibility issues.  

It is my belief that the best way to address the problem of homelessness in Berkeley and simultaneously meet the needs of business owners would be to improve access to support services by raising funds for organizations like Options Recovery Services and Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (YEAH), while also improving the accessibility of the commercial corridors. The police already have a sufficient penal code through which they can enforce the law and should not be encouraged to increasingly confront the homeless in our city. 

Carlos Rivas