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Berkeley Can Remove 2 Unhoused Seniors With Disabilities, Judge Rules

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tents along a street
Tents on 8th Street at a homeless encampment near Harrison Street in Berkeley in June 2023. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Berkeley’s plan to remove two unhoused people living in tents on Eighth Street can move forward, after the city agreed to place them in shelter that is accessible to them.

LeWanda Parnell, 69, and Mike Douglas, 62, filed suit against the city earlier this month, after the city posted notices that it planned to remove the people living at Eighth and Harrison.

Judge Edward Chen ruled Thursday that Parnell could not be removed from her spot until grab bars were installed in the bathroom in the motel room where the city offered her shelter. In the complaint filed Dec. 11, Parnell stated she has a physical disability and experiences frequent falls.

Chen also gave Douglas until Dec. 25 to move, after ruling that the city’s offer of a motel room was adequately accessible. Chen instructed the city attorney to ensure that a list of rules was provided to Douglas within 24 hours. Previously, Douglas had been kicked out of a city-run shelter for breaking rules he said he was unaware of.

Thursday’s decision came after a hearing earlier in the week, where Chen ordered both sides to attempt to resolve the issue out of court and then reconvene.

At the heart of both plaintiffs’ arguments was the nature of accessibility.

“This program is not accessible if somebody’s mental health disorder results in them, you know, not being able to abide by the rules and then get kicked out immediately,” said EmilyRose Johns, an attorney who appeared on behalf of Parnell and Douglas at the hearing. “An unaccessible room is not an available shelter room, unless and until it is accessible.”

After the judge’s ruling, both Parnell and Douglas weren’t sure if they would accept the rooms.

“They’re basically telling us we’re doing the best we can, and if we fall into the cracks it’s OK,” Douglas said. At issue for Douglas was also a deep distrust of the city. He said he was hesitant to take the room because he was worried about being kicked out.

For Parnell, not being able to cook her own food and not being able to have her grandkids or other visitors were possible deal-breakers.

“God willing — I never plan — I’m gonna take one day at a time,” Parnell said.

Both Parnell and Douglas are also part of a related class action lawsuit (PDF) that was filed against Berkeley in September, blocking the city’s planned removal of 42 people in a larger encampment at Eighth and Harrison streets and along surrounding streets.

That case broadly addresses the city’s practices of how it conducts sweeps of homeless encampments, with a focus on the needs of unhoused people with mental and physical disabilities. The suit seeks to challenge how and when residents are given notice of a planned camp closure, the dumping or destruction of peoples’ belongings, the accessibility of available shelter and the presence of mental health liaisons during these actions.

That case and an update on the status of the room offered to Parnell will be addressed at a hearing set for Jan. 11.

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