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Berkeley Myth
Carol Denney says Berkeley doesn't deserve its self-image as friend to the homeless.

By Carol Denney

Reporters routinely call Berkeley the "home of the free speech movement," forgetting that it was UC Berkeley's repression of free speech that engendered the backlash creating the 1964 Free Speech Movement in the first place. You'll still be threatened with arrest if you try to put up a poster in downtown Berkeley's Constitution Square.

Berkeley thinks it is so generous to poor and homeless people that it's done more than its "fair share," and that cracking down on people who might sit down in commercial areas by making sitting down a crime is "the next logical step," according to Mayor Tom Bates and a council majority.

But for decades, Berkeley has systematically replaced low-income housing with condominiums, high-end penthouses and housing unaffordable to people with the most pressing housing needs. Boarding houses once available for a short stay are mostly reserved for students today. Shelters are full, while condominiums and brand new apartments sit empty or quickly convert to student housing.

Anyone lucky enough to have a full-time minimum wage job will fall about $500 short of being able to pay an average monthly apartment rent, with no money left over for food.

Berkeley has no public campground, no day shelter, the same approximately 200 shelter beds it had 20 years ago for its approximately 800 homeless people on any given night, and very few public benches. Berkeley has the largest income disparity in the Bay Area.

Berkeley is a college town, and it wants people here -- well-heeled tourists, or those lucky enough to afford an increasingly unaffordable education, or an increasingly unavailable job. Even without an anti-sitting law, police in Berkeley are handing out expensive tickets for trespassing or blocking the sidewalk to people who don't fit the preferred profile, according to the staff at East Bay Community Law Center.

Berkeley puts a lot of effort into a public image of generosity, but it's pretty hard to find on the streets if you're down on your luck.

With a Perspective, this is Carol Denney.

Carol Denney is a local writer, musician and activist.

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