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Committee Votes to Keep Mayor’s Public Commons Initiative on Agenda

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday May 01, 2007

Despite community pleas to talk with members of the homeless community first, the Berkeley City Council’s Agenda Committee Monday afternoon refused to take the mayor’s Public Commons for Everyone proposal off the May 8 council agenda.  

Mayor Tom Bates’ proposal calls for services for people with inappropriate street behavior and, at the same time, advocates new laws to address behaviors such as prolonged sitting on the street, urinating and defecating in public and smoking within 25 feet of a commercial building. 

After listening to members of the public who underscored that social service providers and both the Homeless and Community Welfare commissions want the measure delayed, the committee—the mayor and Councilmembers Linda Maio and Gordon Wozniak—voted to keep the item on the agenda. 

However, the mayor said he wanted to assure the public that at the council meeting, no new law would be proposed, with the exception of expanding the no-smoking ordinance from 20 to 25 feet in front of a commercial building.  

“It’s not like this is moving quickly,” the mayor said, emphasizing that the initiative is on the agenda mostly for discussion. 

After the meeting, however, Dan McMullan of Disabled People Outside, told the Daily Planet he feared that even something as popular as a no-smoking ordinance could be misused. Storeowners who come outside to smoke won’t get cited, but homeless people will, McMullan said. 

Attorney Osha Neumann, who often represents homeless and impoverished people, said after the meeting that he was somewhat encouraged by the mayor’s statements. “I think they’re backing off the fast track,” he said. “They see the community opposition.”  

Mental Health Commission Chair Michael Diehl added that those supportive of homeless persons and the rights of people with mental health issues would nonetheless be out in force at the May 8 meeting. “We will definitely be there to speak to the issue,” he said. 

Speaking to the committee on behalf of the Berkeley Community Coalition, which mostly represents service providers, boona cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, called on the mayor and city manager to meet directly with homeless people to have “open and honest dialogue as to the total purpose of the Public Commons for Everyone initiative and with their input find ways to influence street behavior without creating new laws.” 

“The May 8 report is on how we will proceed,” Bates told the community members. “It’s a way to invite discussion.” The staff report being prepared for the council meeting was not available at press time. 

Bates said implementation would depend on whether there are funds available at budget time for the initiative. Initial funding is to include a part-time employee to write the plan. “We’re not going to do something we don’t have the resources for,” he said. “You don’t have to worry too much.” 

Last week, the Berkeley Community Coalition met to discuss the mayor’s proposal. 

“The religious community says ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ I feel this is the antithesis,” said Sally Hindman, a member of the coalition and director of Young Aspirations, Young Artists (YAYA). 

The mayor has said in previous meetings that this initiative is important to force “service-resistant” people into getting services. But Hindman, who describes herself as a “strong supporter of Mayor Tom Bates said, “It’s not right to talk about service-resistant people when there are not enough services.”  

What needs to happen is that the community should support adequate services for those in need, including building adequate housing, she said. “We have great community organizations.” 

Also interviewd Friday, cheema said it is not fair to blame homeless people for the inappropriate behavior seen around town. “What about the UC students that come out of Pyramid [Brewery and Alehouse]?” she asked rhetorically. 

She said the mayor’s message—along with similar attempts in the past to criminalize street behavior—“is giving our city a horrible name.”  

Cheema underscored that there are already enough laws on the books to address problematic street behavior. “If someone is screaming and shouting, people can call the police or the mental health team,” she said. “Let’s enforce existing laws.” 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, also in attendance at the BCC meeting, said the city needs to provide positive alternatives for those in need of services.  

“People need places to live off the streets,” he told the Daily Planet Friday. Another important service would be a “medical detox” facility in Berkeley, where people could get in-patient medical care to help them get off drugs and alcohol, he said.