Eyes and Ears for Berkeley Shopping Areas May Help, May Criminalize

By Judith Scherr
Saturday July 19, 2008 - 03:58:00 PM

The Berkeley City Council on Tuesday could approve a two-year $200,000 per-year contract to improve shoppers’ experiences on Telegraph and Shattuck avenues by hiring “hosts” to assist out-of-towners and to direct people with inappropriate behaviors into services or—if they refuse help or if services are not available—to jail.  

The program is part of Mayor Tom Bates’ Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, which will also eventually include housing with services for 10-15 people perceived to behave in socially inappropriate ways near downtown or Telegraph Avenue businesses. 

The only bidder on the host contract is the same trio of organizations that actively lobbied the council for the program: the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District (TBID), the Downtown Business Association (DBA) and Options for Recovery. The group is collectively known as “DOT.” 

“When [the contract] came up, we were the natural people to go to,” Deborah Badhia, executive director of the DBA, told the Planet. City officials “knew we’d be interested,” she said. 

TBID and DBA directors who will manage the program in their respective districts if the contract is approved have told the City Council that people acting-out on the streets near businesses is one of the reasons people don’t shop on Telegraph or downtown. 

“There will be more people on the street, looking out for problems,” Badhia said, noting that business people can’t take care of customers inside their shops and watch the street at the same time. 

“Their sheer physical presence will help,” Badhia said. They will have uniforms, but not resemble police. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington expressed another view: The contract, he said “is political rewards for the people who aggressively advocated for arresting and criminalizing homeless people.”  

Worthington said he would lobby his council colleagues to put guidelines in place so that “arrests are the last resort—after extraordinary efforts.” 

One of the key reasons for vacant storefronts and a dearth of shoppers is high rents charged by property owners, Worthington told his council colleagues during earlier discussions on the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, which was approved by the council in December 2007. 

City staff said that while DOT was the only entity to respond to the city’s Request for Proposals, a number of organizations were alerted to the opportunity. 

“We would have sent it to a whole bunch of people,” Sharon Phygesen, general services manager, told the Planet, adding, however, that the city will not release the names of those to whom the proposal was sent until after the contract is signed. 

The city also will not release a copy of the DOT’s bid, in which it elaborates the services it plans to render and the organization responsible for performing the services, until the contract is signed, Phygesen said. However, a staff report outlines the services, she said. (The staff report is Item 8 in the July 22 City Council packet, found on the council website.) 

Dr. Davida Coady, Options executive director, declined to talk about Options role in DOT. Roland Peterson, TBID executive director said however that Options will recruit and screen hosts. It is not clear at this time whom the hosts will work for. 

“Options’ interest is in diverting people into services who need them – their services of course,” Peterson said. 

Hosts will be largely recruited among “clean and sober” people who have graduated from the Options program, Bahdia said. 

Peterson said his role will be supervising the hosts on Telegraph Avenue once they’re hired. Bahdia will supervise those working downtown. Peterson said he’s had experience in that kind of supervision, having overseen the Telegraph Avenue clean-up crew. 

An organization which performed functions similar to those of the hosts, called the Berkeley Guides, lost its funding a few years ago. Peterson said the DOT hosts would receive more extensive training than the guides had. “They’ll know what the laws are,” he said, noting that the goal is for downtown and Telegraph to become a friendlier, more welcoming places, not for the hosts to become “quasi police.” 

“We want to engage people in services,” he said. The guides had radios that connected them with the police; the hosts will have cell phones so that they can call a mental health team, the public works department for clean-up, or other services as well as police, he said.  

Bahdia underscored that this is a pilot program. “It has to prove its merit. The city is asking us to put in place a process to assess performance,” she said. 

PCEI is funded through a 25 cent per hour increase in parking that went into effect in April.