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TMI from the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness

Carol Denney
Saturday October 29, 2016 - 05:17:00 PM

"Every time they evict us we get bigger." - Mike Lee, candidate for mayor. 

It's true. The police sweeps chasing homeless people from one location to another has brought about an intentional community of tents and shared resources on the Adeline corridor which was the subject of a meeting of around 35 city staff, homeless people, city council and mayoral candidates, Chief of Police Andrew Greenwood, Deputy City Manager Jovan Grogan, and interested members of the public at noon on Friday, October 28, 2016 in the old City Hall Cypress Room. Council and committee members Linda Maio, Darryl Moore, Jesse Arreguin, and Laurie Capitelli stated that the purpose of the meeting was to gather information from the community. 

Councilmember Maio asked people to raise hands and take turns, and what followed was an hour and half of profoundly respectful informal dialogue without any particular agenda. Elliot Halperin of the ACLU asked initially where the committee was now, and Maio responded that they now had a comprehensive report of expenditures.[1] 

Mike Lee, mayoral candidate and organizer with the tent village, stated that the top priority of First They Came for the Homeless is "the establishment of a legal encampment." When Maio asked respectfully for detail, he thanked the assembled group for forming the committee and the opportunity for a forum, calling it a "bold step." He went on to say the HUB, or new point of entry project for homeless services, "broken." 

Lee continued that nobody expected to sit forever on sidewalks in front of businesses, but rather expected a serious discussion of a legal campground with guidelines such as the tent village now has; no drugs or alcohol, a good neighbor policy, etc. "We have a proven track record," he said, saying that a legally sanctioned campground permitted under the emergency declaration on homelessness was the top priority. "We're tired of hearing about a 'regional solution'," he said, noting that every city touts a 'regional solution' as an excuse for not taking the lead. 

Mike Zint, another organizer with First They Came for the Homeless, stated that "so far what we've developed is an evolving solution," adding that to make progress they need a secure property. He described a tent village participant with gangrene who needs medical help immediately as one of many people on the street with a panoply of disabilities both mental and physical. 

He described the core organizers as having evaluated some suggested sites, including an area near Aquatic Park where vehicle dwellers could also park to avoid city harassment. "The idea is we don't need money from the city," he stated quietly. "We take care of ourselves." Help from the city could come in the form of port-a-johns and a water source, since Liberty City, the previous intentional tent city, survived on community support. "My biggest goal is to expand this model to other cities," he said, which required only modest cooperation from the city, and could start small and grow "in a controlled way" relying on common sense and peaceful values. 

Maio expressed a concern about the location being remote, which people agreed could be a concern in some circumstances. But many in the room noted that a quiet, natural location without the stress of being swept by police from one location to another was part of healing, and that many people on the street and in their core group have a "sixth sense" about people and great skill in de-escalation of conflicts. Zint noted that addicts would reject such a site, since they would want to be near their suppliers. Peer pressure within such a community, most agreed is very powerful inspiration. 

"We listen to people," added Zint. "Because we are a subculture we operate by different rules. We are very moral, very proper, we won't tolerate bad behavior." 

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin asked, "You talked about self-governing. What kind of oversight would there be?" Zint replied that he would not mind the police stopping by occasionally, or even a security camera, or social or medical workers, since none of the core group had medical training and some on the street have medical needs. Mike Lee added, "these are resources that presently exist." Mike Zint suggested that the group wanted to heal the relationship between the homeless community and the police. 

Councilmember Maio asked what would happen if somebody problematic for the group camped just outside the main camp, and received thoughtful observations from many in the group about taking time to observe, to listen, and work with the city on difficulties as they arose. Maio then asked how big is too big, about additional locations, and Mike Zint, who had to leave the meeting at that point, encouraged Michael Diehl and council candidate Nancy Armstrong-Temple (council candidate Cheryl Davila was also in attendance) to help clarify any additional issues to the committee. Several community members spoke, citing the current state of homeless services as untenable. 

Mike Wilson, a local community member assisting the tent village, made a powerful statement by saying, "Is it reasonable to drive people from a location without anywhere to go? Is it respectful to take action against homeless people based on unsubstantiated complaints?" Many in the assembly voiced agreement that there should be a moratorium on police sweeps immediately, since they are pointless, expensive, and cruel. Barbara Brust suggested that there be showers and washing machines nearby, noting that existing facilities are overcrowded and rarely available due to very limited hours. Brust challenged the assembly to come out to the tent village and meet people, saying, "you gotta be in their living room." 

Local community member J.P. Massar offered that he had detailed information on shower trucks, saying "I'm not asking you to solve homelessness. I'm asking you to start solving homelessness," citing Berkeley's soda tax as an example of setting a template for other cities. "Creating a sanctioned encampment is the most minimal thing you can do. But it's something you can do now." 

Councilmember Maio stated "We have to work on several levels," moving Mike Lee to emphasize "we need the police to stop chasing us. I can't feed or heal people while wheeling people around the street. The only thing we need is a location. We have a process that works." He repeated Mike Zint's invitation for those in attendance to come to the tent village location to meet people and see for themselves. 

"Anyone can come?" asked Councilmember Darryl Moore, and he was enthusiastically welcomed. Elliot Halperin of the ACLU noted that all studies indicate the inclusion of homeless voices in any plan is a good indicator of success, and was glad to see that step being taken. Michael Diehl, outreach worker, shared information about a needle exchange benefit at Gilman, and the conversation continued in an respectful, inclusive fashion. Councilmember Maio assured the group that the identification of a legal local campsite was understood to be their top priority along with a cessation of the sweeps. 

Councilmember Arreguin expressed confusion as to whether the declaration of a homeless emergency allowed the city to stop using 647, the municipal code often used to ticket homeless people for "camping", sending up no small amount of eyebrows in the educated crowd. Councilmember Moore asked if minor children were present, and Mike Lee patiently answered that that was a challenge the group had yet to meet. 

Mike Wilson, as the productive meeting wrapped up, shared that the group would love the committee's input and hoped that they would not be expected to have with all the answers, to which the council committee agreed, Councilmember Moore ruefully noting they, too, might be a few answers short. 

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