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Is Berkeley Mean To Its Homeless?

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:35:00 AM
Russell Grant, who has been homeless for 20 years, sits with his dog Gabriel outside Smart Alec’s on Telegraph Avenue.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Russell Grant, who has been homeless for 20 years, sits with his dog Gabriel outside Smart Alec’s on Telegraph Avenue.
Donald Cirlin, 52, who left his job in December and is homeless by choice, outside T-Shirt Orgy on Telegraph.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Donald Cirlin, 52, who left his job in December and is homeless by choice, outside T-Shirt Orgy on Telegraph.

Is Berkeley mean to its homeless? A new study by two national homeless advocacy groups says so. 

“Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Berkeley as the 10th meanest city in the country for penalizing homelessness. 

Los Angeles topped the list, followed by St. Petersburg and Orlando. San Francisco came in at number seven. 

The report said that though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter or food for their homeless population, many of them use the criminal justice system to punish people for simply trying to survive on the streets. 

Other cities have prohibited panhandling, selectively enforced laws against loitering and jaywalking and enacted legislation making it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belongings in public spaces.  

These kinds of penalties are increasingly common in today’s economic climate, the report says, with more people falling victim to foreclosures, layoffs and, eventually, homlessness. 

Berkeley made the top 10 primarily because of its Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, which aims to “clear the streets of aggressive and disruptive behavior.”  

According to the report, this law penalizes individuals for a wide range of behavior, including lying on or blocking sidewalks, smoking near doorways, littering and drinking, urinating, defecating and shouting in public. 

The report states that while opponents of the law say it unfairly targets the homeless, its supporters argue it will affect everyone. 

The Daily Planet asked members of Berkeley’s homeless community, homeless advocates and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates whether they thought the city was mean to its homeless. This is what they had to say: 


• “San Francisco, yes. Berkeley, no,” said Albert Karow, 46, who has been homeless for “quite sometime” and suffers from frequent seizures. “A lot of people have drug problems, alcohol problems. From what I have noticed, people who drink a lot get into trouble with the law,” he said as he sat in his wheelchair selling Street Spirit at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph.  


• “I have been homeless in Berkeley quite a few times and it’s not mean,” said Donald Cirlin, 52, who left his job in December and is homeless by choice.” 

“It’s underfunded and the city has a lot on its plate, especially with the state budget deficit. As far as homelessness is concerned, Berkeley happens to be one of the kinder places, because when I started coming here in the 1980s—I was homeless a few times in the early ’80s—they used to have a thing here called the quarter meal. If you could get a quarter, you could have a whole meal here. The breakfast that they have now at the Trinity Church is a joke. It’s from 8 to 8:30 a.m. and then you’ve got to be out of there—Boom! They don’t need to be that severe. They have a perfect opportunity to do something with these people, but they just hustle them in and out. On that level there is some insensitivity, but it’s not just with Berkeley. In L.A., they let people sleep on the sidewalk there, right next to the police station. The cops pretend like they don’t even exist. 

“I have been homeless in a lot of different places, and I personally don’t feel there’s anything wrong with sleeping outdoors. I think the city should provide a safe place to sleep outdoors, like a campground, and in exchange for staying there if you don’t have money, people could do services for the city—help an old person, or a disabled person, or pick up trash.” 

Cirlin, whose family owned an apartment building at 2632 Piedmont Ave. in the 1940s, spoke from his perch in front of T-Shirt Orgy on Telegraph Avenue Tuesday, listening to the radio.  


• “What about Fresno? They throw people out of the streets there,” said Russell Grant, a member of Berkeley’s homeless community. 

“The cops here are nice to me, at least most of the time. The people are nice too, but they don’t want to give any money. All I have here is this (a penny) and I have been here since morning. The thing that drives me mad is that they shut the bathrooms next to the bus stops during the night and I have to do it on the streets. We need outhouses next to the bus stops. There’s a suitcase clinic and it comes in handy. Lots of volunteers doing a great job. I have gone there for haircuts. They do a footwash thing, too—you have to be pretty humble to do that. A lot of people are not that clean, you know. I think I will go get my foot cleaned tonight.” 

Homeless for 20 years, Grant talked to a reporter as he sat in front of Smart Alec’s with his dog Gabriel reading a book. 


• “They offer an easy ride,” said W, who didn’t want to give his full name. Homeless for the last seven months, he had just moved to Berkeley from Oregon. 

Berkeley “offers free food—though it’s small amounts and not served often,” W said. “They have free showers at Willard Park, but it’s not hot. The Trinity Church serves breakfast in the morning at 8—it’s not cuisine or anything, but it’s pretty good. The city has a policy of profiling some people which I don’t like. The governor’s cutting funding, so it’s just a matter of time before they cut the services. I heard they are going after the elderly now.” 


• “It’s kind of like people become callous about the homeless,” said Phat Andy, 19, who has a place to sleep in Oakland but often crashes with friends. “When you ask for spare change, they learn to tune out. I haven’t been in trouble with Berkeley police, but I have felt discriminated against, even when I am just sitting on the streets. A lot of it is like profiling,” he said Tuesday while visiting friends at People’s Park after shopping at Buffalo Exchange. 


• “In 1992-1993, five or seven years after I first moved to Berkeley, there was such a backlash against criminalizing the homeless. It was so nice to see,” said Dan McMullen, a Berkeley resident who is with the Disabled People’s Outside Project. 

“A lot of people were advocating for them. Now they [the city] can get away with doing anything to the homeless. The citizens of Berkeley no longer care. There might be 10 or 15 people standing up to speak on homeless issues at City Council compared to hundreds in the past. This town was really nice and compassionate at one point, now you get dirty looks at Berkeley Bowl.” 


• “It’s an unfair characterization of the city,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “We have continued all the services and even extended some of our services. We have started programs for at-risk youth. An Alameda County study indicated we made great strides in reducing chronic homelessness. We spend more money per capita on homeless services than any other city in the country. 

“People have tried to characterize the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative as criminalizing the homeless. We established more toilet facilities for people, added new benches around town and addressed street behavior. The initiative was not directed at any particular population. It was directed at a lot of people causing difficulties on the street. And they are not always the homeless.” 


• “I read an article on the subject and from what I can see, the city’s laws are aimed at criminalizing those who trespass, loiter or harass others,” said James Reagan, another member of Berkeley’s homeless community. “These are often people who come to Berkeley from other areas and really don’t respect what the locals have accepted. 

“I believe the laws are too tough on the homeless in general. However, the police are there not only to serve and protect the community, but they do protect the needy as well. I am against the harassment, but some of it is brought upon those who fail to accept authority; and in the most part, those who fail are usually mentally challenged and taken to John George.” 


• “I was happy to see Berkeley at number 10,” said boona cheema, executive director of the Berkeley-based non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency. 

“I was expecting it to be much higher on the list based on Berkeley's long history of introducing and passing laws which might not have the intention of criminalizing the homeless but in actuality do. Berkeley has always found a way to sweeten these laws by adding services, which keep the service providers from going up against the city when civil and human rights of the homeless are abused, for every street outreach person we also need advocates who insure that street people’s rights are not being violated.”