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Council Says ‘Hosts’ Should Help, Not Criminalize

By Judith Scherr
Thursday July 24, 2008 - 09:52:00 AM

The City Council Tuesday cautioned against the criminalization of street people when it unanimously approved a contract for the city’s new $200,000-per-year “host” program, aimed at improving the downtown and Telegraph Avenue shopping experience by targeting people from those areas whose behavior is offensive to shoppers.  

Hosts will direct people behaving inappropriately to services, but if the people—often homeless individuals who are mentally ill or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or both—refuse help, or if services are not available, the hosts have the option of calling for police intervention. 

Councilmembers underscored that they want police called only as the last resort. 

“The priority will be assisting people into services,” said Councilmember Linda Maio, adding wording to that effect to the recommendation for the contract approved by the council. Also added was a clause that the program would be evaluated in 15 months rather than after two years and that it could be canceled if it was not working as expected. 

In a phone interview Wed- 

nesday, Lauren Lempert, analyst in the city manager’s office,  

who heads the program, told  

the Planet that she is “still grappling” with the question of how  

to track the work of the hosts.  

It is especially difficult to know what happens when police  

are called, since they do not track “quality of life” infractions such as smoking in a no-smoking area or drinking in public.  

The program can more easily track when referrals to programs are made and when police are called, she said. 

Hosts—two downtown and two on Telegraph Avenue—are to be stationed Thursday through Sunday as the “eyes and ears” on the street.  

“There will be more people on the street looking out for problems,” Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Business Association (DBA), told the Planet. Business people can’t take care of customers inside their shops and watch the street at the same time, she said.  

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

“There will be no emphasis on arresting people,” Lempert told the council. “They will not be acting like police. The main emphasis is directing people to services.” 

Noting, in an interview last week, that the Downtown Berkeley Association, the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District and Options Recovery Services are the same trio of organizations that actively lobbied the council for the program, Councilmember Kriss Worthington called the contract “political rewards for the people who aggressively advocated for arresting and criminalizing homeless people.”  

Worthington questioned the experience of the group in managing this kind of program. 

Addressing the contract issue, however, Badhia told the Planet: “When [the contract] came up, we were the natural people to go to.” City officials “knew we’d be interested,” she said.  

The request for proposals were also sent to some 40 other nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Independent Living, the East Bay Community Law Center and the Dorothy Day House, according to the city manager’s staff. 

The host program is part of Mayor Tom Bates’ Public Commons for Everyone Initiative (PCEI), premised on the belief by representatives of the downtown and Telegraph Avenue business associations that people with mental health or drug and alcohol problems who act out in business districts keep shoppers away.  

During a tour of the Telegraph Avenue area last year, however, some business people and Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Planet they believe shoppers stay away from Telegraph because of the numerous vacancies caused by property owners’ high rents and because of parking restrictions. 

Calling the program, “Public commons for everyone except those who need it most,” PhoeBe Sorgen, a District 6 council candidate, addressed the council during the public comment period. “I urge you to be very careful,” she said. 

“I don’t see anything about services here,” said Mary Rose (Redwood Mary) Kaczorowski, also addressing the council. Kaczorowski is a District 4 candidate. 

The PCEI program is gearing up to offer some services. According to Housing Director Jane Micallef, outreach staff has been hired, who will help get 10–15 people into permanent housing. A Nov. 27, 2007, staff report identifies these people as “10–15 chronically homeless adults who have previously been the hardest to reach, but who are probably the most likely to cause problematic street behavior.” 

At the Tuesday evening meeting, the council also approved a $100,000 contract with Lifelong Medical Care for “intensive case management” for these 10–15 individuals to help them keep their housing and to address their substance abuse or mental health needs.  

The city has allocated $125,000 to pay landlords market rent for the housing. Tenants will pay 30 percent of their income for the housing. 

Other services promised when the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative was approved in November included availability of 24-hour bathrooms. However, while bathroom hours have been extended at Civic Center, the Civic Center Garage, and the Telegraph-Channing Garage to midnight or 1 a.m., they are not available all night. 

Only one 24-hour portapotty—not the four originally planned—has been installed. Business owners downtown and on Telegraph Avenue did not want it placed near their businesses, and no business people took the city up on an offer to pay a stipend in return for allowing all people—not just customers—to use their bathrooms, according to city manager staff. 

Dr. Davida Coady, Options executive director, declined to talk directly to the Planet about Options’ role in the host program, but addressed the council on Tuesday, saying, “Our piece of this is to help recruit the people who will be the hosts.” 

Hosts will likely come from Options program graduates. “They are people who have gone through this,” Coady said, referring to substance abuse. “They know the way out. We at Options will provide services.” 

Addressing the council, TBID Executive Director Roland Peterson underscored that the purpose of the program was, “making sure downtown and Telegraph are more hospitable.” 

Peterson will manage the host program on Telegraph Avenue, and Badhia will manage it downtown. “I assure the council,” Peterson said, “there is no intention of violating anyone’s civil rights.” 

PCEI is funded mostly through a 25-cent-per-hour increase in parking that went into effect in April. The city is separately funding Lempert’s $7,562 per month salary plus 50 percent benefits.