Public Comment

Commentary: Unfinished Comments from the Town Hall Meeting

By Patricia E. Wall
Tuesday October 02, 2007

The only thing that really changes the problem of homelessness is housing. The rest of these comments are just for your entertainment. 

Here are my top concerns. I will borrow from the best sloganeering of the twelve step programs to outline why the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative (PCEI) is a waste of precious city resources: 

1. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” There is nothing, nothing new in the PCEI plan, except that it’s been repackaged and given a cynical name. The city already tried Measure O and failed at it, and now that collective memory fades about how stupid that idea was, this new plan is launched. 

2. “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” The city adopted eight principles and a work plan to end chronic homelessness in Berkeley. PCEI is inconsistent with this very constructive plan, and does nothing new under the sun. Increased enforcement doesn’t work. Berkeley Mental Health cannot and does not serve this population of people. Berkeley Mental Health is at full to overflowing capacity at all times. I know homeless people who have been on a waiting list for psychiatry for 6 months. They’re not who works with the homeless. Ask the people who do. 

3. “Being a part of something is more important than being the center of attention.” The administration is going through the heroic motions of saving the businesses and public spaces on and around Telegraph Avenue even though there is already a solution in the works. Look at the plan passed in May of 2006 about how to end chronic homelessness. Follow the eight steps. Do it without involving the police department. It’s about housing. 

4. “Look for a way in, not for a way out.” Stop saying that 75 percent of homeless people are from somewhere else. Some people think that’s thinly veiled racism. Stop running from the people who sell the Street Spirit: They’re the ones who are doing pretty well, all things considered. Talk to people who are homeless, talk to the people who serve them. Study this problem, learn about its causes, and be about peace in solving it. 

5. “Frequently wrong, but rarely in doubt.” The confidence of the administration in moving forward with a half-baked plan that ignores the city’s established priorities for ending chronic homelessness is suspect. I understand pressure from the business community, but the business people deserve a real plan, based on what works, not what will pacify and distract them in the short term. 

6. “Anger is fear in a party dress.” This plan has a retaliatory look and feel, and is based on the frustration and anger of some community members who can’t believe we haven’t solved homelessness yet. You can call this plan any cynical name you like, promise business leaders that they can have the cell phone number of every beat cop in the city, but the fact of the matter is that this plan is based on barely concealed fear of homeless “street behavior.” If people who live outside had housing the behavior that creates this climate of fear would move indoors to the private sphere.  

7. “There is no right way to do the wrong thing.” We could spend another three hours on a Saturday discussing the particulars of this plan, how to allocate scarce resources, who to talk to, how to implement, but would we be one inch closer to solving the problem of people who have no place to live, and no assistance in changing that fact. There aren’t enough places that people who are very low income can afford. This county has just begun a long process to address one small part of the housing for homeless people, and Berkeley needs to focus its energy on adding its promised units of housing—350 over the next 10 years—to solve this problem. Bathrooms are great, smoking prohibitions are probably a new way to ticket homeless people that we haven’t considered before, but the rest of this plan is taking up space in the public discourse that could be used to actually do something useful to end homelessness. 


Patricia E. Wall is the executive director of Homeless Action Center.