Flash: The Poor Tour Hits the Road Again

Carol Denney
Friday November 03, 2017 - 04:00:00 PM

On Friday afternoon, November 3rd, a storm was brewing in Berkeley. Winds chased dry leaves into corners, grey clouds gathered, and people on the street tacked any tarps they had down over their belongings anticipating rain. 

Some of the group gathered near the HERE/THERE sculpture at Adeline Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard were packing up in anticipation of an eviction the next morning from BART property ordered by federal court. Others had already packed out, setting up on median strips or elsewhere throughout the city. There are estimated to be about a dozen small tent cities throughout town, but this one, a loose aggregation of people called "First They Came for the Homeless", gathers together not just for safety, but to openly challenge laws criminalizing poverty and homelessness. 

"About this time last year we were doing the 'poor tour', evicted from site after site," stated Adam Bredenberg, one of the plaintiffs in the case opposing BART's eviction, who found me a place to sit while we talked. "We never went into the shadows because our survival depends on our visibility." 

"We stuck together, and we're still sticking together," said Bredenberg, a dignified young man who has been with First They Came for the Homeless for years longer than the ten months' stay on BART property. "We're having to bounce around again." 

"This is a semi-permanent solution," he said, watching the orderly, cooperative efforts to prepare for both eviction and hard weather after ten months of relative peace in one spot. "It would be nice to get six months or a year." 

Mayor Jesse Arreguin, still in the first year of his administration, had sent a message to Berkeley constituents only hours earlier complimenting the group and pledging city assistance: 

"If you have lived in Berkeley any amount of time, you've likely noticed the growth in homeless encampments, a direct correlation of the region’s lack of affordable housing. Over the past 30 years, 80 percent of government funding for homeless and mental health services has been cut and the homeless population has grown exponentially.  

While my administration is taking steps to open a new shelter in West Berkeley and build new units of below market housing and emergency shelter in the downtown area, we know that we don’t have the resources to shelter for everyone who needs it. As a result, people will continue to live on our streets. 


That’s why I have long believed that the HERE/THERE encampment should be allowed to remain. Unlike many homeless encampments, it has set rules, including a noise curfew, prohibits alcohol and drugs and keeps the area clear of debris. It functions like a well-run tent village and provides shelter for people who would otherwise be sleeping in doorways and park benches. In other words, it is a model we could potentially replicate in other camps --perhaps with some around the clock security -- moving forward. 


I am saddened that BART is not willing to let the HERE/THERE encampment stay, but am committed to helping members find a new location..." 

Adam Bredenberg responded stoically to this news. "People don't understand the situation the world is in, and especially this region," he said. "There's a shelter crisis because people aren't thinking right. They won't give us the tiniest little thing because it would fuck up their system and their ideology." 

I asked if he was present for the recent court hearing, and he said yes. Did the judge seem sympathetic, I asked? 

"I'm sure he was sympathetic, but he didn't have a solution." Bredenberg told me the judge had asked absurdly judgmental questions about the group - did they have jobs? were they on drugs? Bredenberg said it was a lot like reading the internet comments, but added "it doesn't matter. He's got to do his job." 

Bredenberg noted with soft irony the fact that BART's property was referred to as "private" while obviously being open to the public and thus "public" at the same time, a trick the University of California uses in legal settings as well. 

I asked about his take on Mayor Arreguin, who had spent his first days blaming the Berkeley City Manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, for chasing First They Came for the Homeless from one side of City Hall to the other within only a few dozen feet from his inaugural giant human peace sign event. 

"Arreguin is hedging his bets," responded Bredenberg, who noted that Arreguin's Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness has been meeting for over a year without managing to create a safe outdoor space. There are some modest improvements and expansions in a few shelter settings, such as allowing pets and adding more beds, but Bredenberg's point, echoed on paper by federal court Judge William Alsup, is that decades of an inadequate response remains inadequate. 

"I went two or three times," says Bredenberg of the mayor's Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness, saying that aside from the public comment period no one gets to contribute. "You can sit there knowing the answer to a question, but you can't say anything. No one from this camp is included." 

The Mayor's website even today, November 4, 2017, the day the 72-hour eviction stay runs out for the HERE/THERE tent city, has a roundabout way of excusing the city's refusal to provide a legal area for people to rest and set up personal shelters; "It is our hope that people living in encampments will choose to live indoors." 

Bredenberg says no one from their group is actually on the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness, which is composed of city council representatives, police, and city staffers. He got tired of having to sit and listen to the city voices without being able to respond. "I would go back as a participant," says Bredenberg. Which seems only fair. 

But Mayor Arreguin's statement needs at least one correction; the awkward, poorly worded part that says " we know that we don’t have the resources to shelter for (sic) everyone who needs it..." and it isn't the peculiar grammar that's the problem. Berkeley hasn't in several decades even considered putting the money it spends on chasing people pointlessly from one location to another toward simply renting available space, space it could even legally commandeer. 

Even commercial Airb&b rates for house rentals hit lower than the $15,000 per person the city is budgeting for their Pathways project beds, and that's with bathrooms, kitchens, the full housing monte. Berkeley has the money, and spends literally millions of the public's dollars helping downtown property owners promote their businesses instead of addressing the most pressing human needs. Berkeley does have "the resources to shelter for (sic) everyone who needs it", and the math is easy to do. It just hasn't wanted to honestly commit to providing housing with the money it spends anyway, preferring an exhausting, debilitating, humiliating system of temporary shelter even the federal court describes as "admittedly insufficient." 

Where is the legal campground? Judge Alsup is requiring that by November 28, 2017, the City of Berkeley and plaintiffs' attorney Dan Siegel provide more specific resolutions than those Mayor Arreguin and the Berkeley City Council have considered sufficient for their first year. The "we spend a lot of resources" refrain the city has used for years to fend off criticism while confiscating belongings and jailing the poor may have turned a corner.