What Is To Be Done about Do-Nothing Berkeley?

Becky O'Malley
Friday January 08, 2016 - 01:20:00 PM

Cold, isn’t it? For those readers who are in Berkeley, it would be good to try to imagine what it would be like to sleep outside, what it’s been like for the last few nights. On nights like these, Berkeley has nowhere near enough indoor sleeping places (note that I did not say beds) to offer shelter to those who need it. Or even those who want it, a smaller number than one which includes those who need it but don’t know that they should want it.

What is to be done? That’s the perennial question, isn’t it? Lenin raised it. (Russian: Что делать?, transliterated: Shto delat'?). Trotsky answered it, starting a fight which is still going on, at least here in Berkeley in the common room at Redwood Gardens. Let’s not linger over the details, but just stop to note that whatever the right answer is, we haven’t done it.

Good people in Berkeley, ironically not old lefties but for the most part Church Ladies and their gentlemen allies, are doing what they can, collecting warm coats, serving meals in parks, and other noble but not sufficient tasks. For both Trotsky and Lenin despite their differences, the answer still seems to me to be analyzed as political, not charitable. 

The simplistic answer is that what we need to defeat homelessness is more homes. “Home” is variously defined, but in this context as a way of ending homelessness it tends to mean more physical spaces for humans to escape the cold and rest their weary bodies at night. 

But as any reader of the nasty commentariat knows, many of these folks are badly behaved, or at least eccentric, and that means they need more than just real estate. That’s why there’s a grandiose plan for a purpose-built housing development which will offer the kind of social services aimed at teaching residents how to conform their behavior to conventional social standards. If and when this gets built, it will probably work for a fraction of “the homeless”, but not for all. 

Even this takes money, much more money than anyone in Berkeley’s governing majority seems to be able to raise. Nothing could be less useful than consuming all available building sites with luxury housing, which studies show only makes things worse. See, for example, this article forwarded to me by a correspondent whose business is now in downtown Berkeley: 


It quotes a letter from ClimatePlan, Greenbelt Alliance, and the Planning & Conservation League: 

“While infill development, done right, can greatly improve the quality and livability of a neighborhood and the health of its residents,” the letter wrote, “new development can also result in both physical (direct) displacement and economic(indirect) displacement. Unchecked, the displacement of residents and neighborhood-serving businesses that can no longer stay in a neighborhood because of escalating rents/property values brought on by new development, can have significant harmful environmental, social, and health equity consequences. We believe these impacts should be fully incorporated into the CEQA framework.” 

Yet Berkeley’s governing body has just approved a new development that does exactly what this letter warns against: allowing a key city block near BART to be dedicated to wealthy San Francisco commuters and extracting only minimal, insufficient mitigations from the proponents. More such boondoggles are in the works right now. 

There are rumors that Jerry Brown’s new budget will do something about homelessness. 

According to the Sacramento Bee

“In a pre-budget salvo earlier this week, Senate Democrats proposed a $2 billion bond to build housing for homeless people with mental illnesses and said they will push for $200 million in general fund revenue over four years to pay for rent subsidies for homeless people. 

“Brown said that bond proposal is something that addresses a ‘real need’ and that he will ‘look at that.’ ” 

Worst case, however, is that the bond would just supply more baksheesh for the construction industry, as school bonds have unfortunately done for years. This includes financiers, builders, and even construction unions like the Ironworkers, who routinely promote tall steel-framed building as make-work for their members, when moderate height wood-frames are better for the environment and less expensive. 

And at the same time Brown seems to be refusing to restore the funding for social services which were slashed at the beginning of the recession, even though there's now a budget surplus. To do what is conventionally spoken of as “ending homelessness”, i.e. “get those people off the streets and out of the face of Our Town’s housed residents”, bricks and mortar, or even concrete and steel, are not the answer. Social services are crucial. 

Also, toilets. Yes, public toilets, safe, clean, numerous public toilets, in Berkeley and everywhere else where there are complaints about defecation on the street. This modest goal should be attainable without state bonds, even on the local budget. 

All it takes to do something about the last item is the will on the part of the elected officials to make it work. Why hasn’t it happened before this? 

Harry Truman ran against the Do-Nothing Congress. It’s time to find candidates around here who will run against Do-Nothing Legislators at all levels. That includes Nancy Skinner, who wants to move from the Democratic-controlled do-nothing Assembly to the state Senate, and it includes incumbent majority-voting members of the Berkeley City Council who are running for re-election or elevation despite their record of failure. 

In the language of the electoral campaigns of my youth, It’s Time for a Change. How this can be accomplished is a topic for another day.