A Crime to be Poor in Berkeley??

Tiny - Posted on 11 April 2015

Vivian Thorp/PoorNewsNetwork

Is it a crime to be poor in Downtown Berkeley??

As someone who experienced houselessness in the East Bay over ten years ago, I cannot imagine having local punitive laws making it illegal for me being poor in certain areas of a city like the ones that the City of Berkeley are trying to impose on houseless communities in Downtown Berkeley. The Downtown Berkeley Association is thinking that they can literally ‘sweep away’ houseless people out of the downtown area just because they are poor. This attempt of exterminating poor houseless communities out of Downtown Berkeley is being spearheaded by the Downtown Business Association of Berkeley (DBA), chaired by a Berkeley resident who doesn’t even own a business in Downtown Berkeley and lacks empathy for poor houseless communities period.

Currently, the DBA is proposing the implementation of draconian local ‘pauper laws’ against houseless communities in Downtown Berkeley, attempting to seek support from the Mayor of Berkeley and the Berkeley City Council. The proposed laws include; not being able to panhandle within ten feet of a parking pay station, placing any objects within three feet from a tree well, using any type of bedding or blankets on the sidewalks between 7am and 10pm, attaching objects to public fixtures and unpermitted cooking on sidewalks or in the plaza area.

On March 18, 2015, there was a march and rally held against the proposal of these draconian laws which were set on the Berkeley City Council’s meeting agenda for consideration. These proposed laws moved forward in secret with zero input from the City of Berkeley’s own Homeless Commission, or any of the local Berkeley homeless program providers. People with actual knowledge about homelessness were locked out of the secret process of formulating these laws. Unfortunately, the Berkeley Mayor and the majority of the Berkeley City Council voted ‘in favor’ of allowing the proposal of these laws to be considered and the laws are now being reviewed by the City Manager and the City Attorney. The laws will come back to the City Council for their approval.

As someone who diligently worked on the ‘No on Measure S’ campaign in Berkeley during the 2012 election season against Measure S (which would have outlawed sitting on the sidewalks of Berkeley), I feel that this recent proposal against poor and homeless communities in Berkeley is a direct retaliatory act as Measure S did not pass. Just like Measure S in 2012, these new laws are proposed by the DBA in an attempt to criminalize poor communities from having the ability to sit and rest in public space. The DBA has met with City Council members repeatedly since Measure S failed to try to get another anti-homeless set of laws passed, despite the will of Berkeley voters. The DBA will not be happy until they can “disappear” all poor people from downtown Berkeley.

At the same time that all of this anti-homeless work is being done by the DBA, two of its staff “ambassadors” were caught on camera brutally assaulting two homeless men who were temporarily resting behind a building after recycling for cans and bottles. These same “ambassadors” then filed a false police report against the homeless men that they had just assaulted, and the Berkeley Police arrested the two men shortly after the assault. The two homeless men were arrested and taken to jail for the weekend. Each of them pled guilty to the charges in order to get out of jail. After reviewing a videotape of the “ambassadors” beating the two homeless ment, the District Attorney dropped all the charges against the two men and made a factual finding of innocence. To see the video go to: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/berkeley-ambassador-caught-came...

This DBA sponsored, Downtown Berkeley Ambassador is a source of misery and harassment for homeless people in downtown Berkeley. The “ambassadors” are paid by DBA to clean up, and to get homeless people to “move along”. They are in steady communication with the Berkeley Police Department, and often call the police when they witness homeless people who are seated outside businesses. The ambassadors are low-paid workers who are hired to enforce economic segregation and “clean up” downtown. While the DBA would say that ambassadors help get homeless people into services, ambassadors are an arm of enforcement and not assistance. The DBA is concerned about planters, benches, new public art ( huge pricey art sculpture of a huge metal grizzly bear who is about to step into a bear trap instead), and having the “right” people in the neighborhood.

As Dan McMullan, a longtime Berkeley resident who was formerly houseless in Berkeley for many years, stated, “The bear is about to step in the trap, what does that tell you? The same people (these Ambassadors of Downtown Berkeley) beat up those people in the alley in that video, because they were trapped…so they got a trap for you if you if you are poor and homeless in Downtown Berkeley.” Dan spoke at the Interfaith Action in Solidarity with Homeless People held on April 9, 2015 in Downtown Berkeley where many local Berkeley community members and local community members of faith slept out overnight on the street with the homeless community on the streets of Downtown Berkeley

It is easy for the DBA to target the most vulnerable community, than face the truth about the over-priced rent costs and economic disparity that greatly divides communities. Demonizing the poor is a handy smokescreen hiding the reality that many struggle to live through each day. Turning Downtown Berkeley into a exclusive, suburban outdoor mall seems to be the DBA’s goal. With this goal, they directly target homeless and poor people with their bigoted attempts to criminalize people for their very existence.

At the April 9th event, Bob Offer-Westort, who organizes on homeless issues in Berkeley explained, “The Proposal is to create a set of new laws which will be exclusive to harassing anyone deemed ‘undesirable’ and is a distraction from the real issues of extremely high rent costs and parking problems in Downtown Berkeley.”

The struggle continues…


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