I am writing to comment on some of the issues raised by the so-called Public Commons for Everyone Initiative on the City Council agenda for Tuesday evening. Without my belaboring the ironic and Orwellian implications of using the term “commons,” what concerns me most is the disproportionate emphasis on coming up with new laws rather than bringing community and city resources to bear directly on the issue of problematic street behavior. Has anyone analyzed how many taxpayer dollars would go to pay for the staff time of members of the city attorney and city manager’s offices to come up with new laws? We could be spending those funds on pragmatic solutions, such as instituting true community policing, funding peer counselors to work on the streets, and increasing services to address the real mental health and substance abuse issues that cause most of the problems.
I find it unconscionable for the city to spend staff time crafting an ordinance about public urination/defecation without the City Council first making sure that there are adequate and safe locations at all times of the day for people to use a restroom. What about those French self-cleaning toilets that pay for themselves with advertising, which other cities have installed? Providing adequate restroom facilities might well solve the problem without a need for additional legislation.
I also object to the possible sitting/lying ordinance the council will be discussing as part of the package. As someone who walks with my housemate and our dogs to a variety of nearby business areas, including the Elmwood, Domingo Street, and Telegraph Avenue, I often end up sitting on the sidewalk with the dogs while my housemate goes in to wait in weekend lines to purchase something. But I highly doubt that I’ll be among those targeted if the council were to pass a divisive ordinance, which in the end only ends up criminalizing the homeless. Even if the city attorney’s office can come up with something that passes constitutional muster, is this really what we want Berkeley to be standing for—seeing just how far we can push the Constitution? Sitting and lying in and of themselves are harmless behaviors; since we know from the git-go that such a law will be enforced disproportionately and will not be practical for our local D.A. to follow through on, why don’t we look instead at more creative ways of addressing the underlying issues? Instituting true community policing, first on Telegraph and then extending it to the downtown and other business districts, would be a good first step, but it takes funding and ongoing commitment. A program of peer counselors who spend time on the street getting to know everyone there, directing people toward appropriate resources, and helping model appropriate behavior from and to all would also be deserving of funding.
Is what we really need new laws? The experience in my neighborhood suggests otherwise. In recent weeks and over the past decade and a half, as a neighborhood leader I have been on the front lines dealing with the issues that confront our neighborhood park (Halcyon Commons) and the surrounding neighborhood, including recent vandalism and an upswing in drug dealing, so I in no way discount the immensity of the problem when we live in an urban area beset by issues the larger society has not dealt with adequately, including poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, and crime. But in all that time I’ve never had a sense that new laws were needed.
What we need is the will to bring resources to bear that will truly address the underlying problems, ranging from greater enforcement of existing laws to funding services to direct those who engage in problematic behaviors in productive directions, including services for the homeless and those with addictions. Our goal needs to be bringing the community together in a kind of civic barn-raising, rather than pushing for laws that divide us.
Nancy Carleton is co-founder of Halcyon Commons Park in South Berkeley.