Berkeley May Put Sidewalk Clearing on Hold Until Homeless Response System is Developed

One of the “First They Came for the Homeless” encampments, before it was removed by the city.  (Natalie Orenstein/Berkeleyside)

On Tuesday, Berkeley's City Council is expected to consider a moratorium on enforcement of a recent ordinance that allows the city to clear homeless people's property from sidewalks.

The city recently began enforcing the rule, which lets officials clear off the sidewalks during the day. People living on the streets are allowed to set up their camps between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., but must break them down during the day. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín has said the new ordinance was meant to address the accumulation of personal items on walkways without criminalizing homelessness.

But Councilmember Cheryl Davila said that the city first needs a robust homelessness response system in place to help before it can expect the unhoused — including seniors and the disabled — to break down their camps each day. After all, she said, they don't necessarily have anywhere to go with their stuff.

"There's a lot of anxiety about it, the anticipation of getting a ticket or enforcement," she said, which could be difficult for them to pay. "Their stuff, which is all they have, is in their tent and they're not able to break it down into a three-by-three." Plus, she said, sometimes they're sick or not able to cart off their belongings.

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Davila said enforcement should be paused until the city has enough daytime shelters and storage lockers for homeless residents to use. She argues developing a system to serve their needs should start with talking to the people who are affected by the ordinance.

"There's no data: who and why and how we can help. So I think all those things need to happen first before we'd enforce," she said.

The ordinance was approved last October and regulates what objects are allowed to be placed on walkways or near BART entrances. As Berkeleyside reported at the time:

The new rules apply to any personal belongings that are not for sale and not “in transit,” except mobility devices like wheelchairs and small blankets or cushions. The policy prohibits all other objects on sidewalks in residential districts. In commercial and manufacturing districts, belongings cannot be left unattended for more than two hours or block access to driveways, crosswalks, buses, transit stops, trash cans and other public structures or accessibility features. Objects are also prohibited on the sidewalks on blocks where there is a BART entrance, and by building entrances between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Davila originally abstained from voting on the regulations.

The city has been engaged in a court battle as well over the clearing of homeless encampments and belongings. A weeklong trial ended last week over whether Berkeley targeted the First They Came for the Homeless group for protesting the clearing of homeless encampments, and whether the city owed three men damages for taking and losing their tents, wheelchair tools and clothes. On Friday, a federal jury in San Francisco found the city did not unfairly target the group or unfairly take the men's belongings.

Earlier this year, after a long fight over people living in RVs on city streets, the City Council also voted to outlaw overnight RV parking in Berkeley — with the caveat that officials would first create an RV permitting system and commit to aiding "priority populations" in their search for permanent housing.

The vote tomorrow night over a possible pause on the sidewalk clearing is expected to be just as contentious.

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