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6 Months After People’s Park Closure, Many Former Residents and Supporters Struggle to Adjust

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A woman serves a man food on a street.
Lisa Teague, left, serves Richard Rodriguez a plate of food on June 1, 2024, at a small open space near People's Park in Berkeley. Teague, a local community activist, volunteered at the park until UC Berkeley closed it in January to build new student and low-income housing on the site. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

At Berkeley’s Quality Inn, resident Kenneth Brookins can often be found beneath a canopy in the parking lot, sitting on a plastic chair.

Beside him, two other plastic chairs are an invitation for others to join him in quiet conversation. Since residents aren’t allowed into each other’s rooms, catching people on their way in and out of the inn is one of the only ways to connect, he said.

“My connection with people is when they come by,” Brookins said.

Those conversations offer a semblance of the community he once had at People’s Park before UC Berkeley closed the park on Jan. 3 to make way for student housing after a prolonged battle over its fate. When it did, the university allowed some former residents of the park and regular visitors like Brookins, who were also experiencing homelessness, to move to the Quality Inn.

With the university’s lease of the hotel expiring at the end of June, Brookins and around two dozen other residents who moved from People’s Park may soon be forced to split up, further splintering a group of people who had become accustomed to the park serving as a place to find both camaraderie and resources.

“People’s Park did a lot for me,” Brookins said. “I hate that they closed the park. They messed up a good thing.”

Security officers guard People’s Park in Berkeley on June 1, 2024. UC Berkeley, which owns the site, closed the park in January and placed shipping containers around the perimeter to prevent entry as it waited to begin construction. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Like many who frequented the park, his relationship with the space was an informal one; he wasn’t a resident there but a frequent visitor. Volunteers say that’s what made the space so critical: For decades, it served as a historic landmark, open green space and gathering place for unhoused and housed residents alike to get a free meal, a fresh set of donated clothing, medical care, or even just some respite. But concerns over crime and recreational drug use at the park, along with the lack of accessible student housing around UC Berkeley’s campus, led to disputes over the space.

Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court ruled that UC Berkeley could proceed with a plan to construct a 1,100-bed dormitory at the park for students, along with 125 apartments for low-income residents — marking the end of the legal battle that capped a contentious, more than half-century-long fight over the park’s fate.

For many of the park’s visitors, including unhoused people like Brookins, volunteers, activists and neighbors, the ruling marks a turning point as each group comes to terms with the closure and seeks different ways to adapt.

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At a press conference following the decision, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said it was important for the university to honor the park’s history while still moving forward with its plan to build housing.

“History should not stop us from progress,” he said. “And the reality is that the current state of People’s Park — with rampant crime, widespread homelessness — is unacceptable.”

Brookins has been unhoused on and off for at least three years. He said he didn’t sleep at the park regularly, preferring instead to spend some nights in shelters and other nights moving between cities within the Bay Area. But he often visited the open space when looking for a place to rest or to get free food, clothing and other resources that local nonprofits provided there.

The park’s closure has made distributing those services a lot harder, said Enrique Marisol, a volunteer who helped provide harm reduction and mutual aid services to park residents and visitors. Marisol said they, along with other volunteers, tried to look for a new location to move their operations — at Sproul Plaza and the “chess corner,” at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street, where people gather to play informal games — but got stymied by UC and city of Berkeley police, who told them they had to move their operations elsewhere.

The volunteers have settled on a small triangular strip of open space at the intersection of Dwight and Telegraph avenues — unofficially known as the Peace and Freedom Memorial Park — but Marisol said they continue to face police interference there, too.


“There is literally nowhere for everyone in our neighborhood to go,” Marisol said. “There’s not a space where people can feel safe to gather and discuss community issues and work on community issues without being watched.”

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Byron White said in an email that the city does not allow loitering at the triangle park, which the city downgraded to a median about five years ago.

“While there is no increase in police presence for the area, the officers that regularly patrol the area have warned people that they are not permitted to loiter there,” wrote White, who also noted that the nearby “chess corner” involves private property.

UC Berkeley police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In April, volunteers, community members and former park residents met at the triangle park to celebrate the 55th anniversary of People’s Park. Activists and city residents first took over the barren lot that would become People’s Park in 1969, planting trees and painting murals to transform it into a community space.

Lisa Teague, a local volunteer and community activist, said the group planted seeds to mark the park’s anniversary and commemorate its legacy. But the triangle park — a small plot of concrete on city-owned land between the intersections of several busy streets — is a far cry from the open space previously provided by People’s Park, despite efforts by volunteers to beautify the area.

She said people are still trying to find other ways to come together.

“You need extra space — spaces that you inhabit when you’re not at home and spaces where you just hang out,” she said. “The loss of that is really difficult, especially for people who have been hanging out for years.”

People on a street provide food and other aid to others. A man sits eating on the sidewalk.
Community members provide food to unhoused residents in Berkeley on June 1, 2024, at a small open space near People’s Park, which UC Berkeley closed in January. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

For other neighbors and residents, People’s Park has long played a pivotal role in Black history and activism — even inspiring Marvin Gaye’s iconic anti-war anthem, “What’s Going On,” which was written in response to a bloody clash in 1969 between protestors and police that led to the death of a 25-year-old bystander named James Rector. Some fear that the park’s closure puts the preservation of this history at risk.

“People’s Park is a historic location of Black organizing in the Bay Area, and that is an important reason why it needs to endure as an open space to gather, to remember and celebrate that history,” said Whitney Sparks, a longtime neighbor of the park. “It’s not about housing. It’s always been about silencing movements for civil rights.”

In an interview with KQED, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof acknowledged the historical significance of People’s Park. He said the university plans to highlight the park’s important history by installing commemorative plaques and murals in collaboration with the community.

As for the unhoused residents who relied on the park for services, Mogulof said the university collaborated with the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley and the nonprofit Village of Love to provide community members with a new daytime gathering center. There, visitors are provided with amenities, including showers, restrooms and mental and physical health services, Mogulof said.

“Before we closed the park, the university committed — and made good on the commitment — that we would not close the park unless and until we could provide those who have been gathering in the park with an alternative gathering place during the day,” Mogulof said.

Mogulof noted that 60% of the site will remain open green space, while 40% will be developed into housing. There’s no exact date yet for when construction will start, but Mogulof said it would likely begin sometime this summer.

To secure the site for construction, the university in January installed shipping containers stacked more than 17 feet high around the full perimeter of the park, blocking public access to the space after previous demonstrations there had resulted in damage to construction equipment.

A sign says 'No Trespassing'
A ‘No Trespassing’ sign is displayed on a shipping container at People’s Park in Berkeley. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Teague said her home used to look out onto trees, grass and people playing basketball. Since the park’s closure in January, it’s just been shipping containers.

“The shipping containers kind of bring down the neighborhood,” she said.

Shortly before the closure of People’s Park at the beginning of the year, UC Berkeley leased the Quality Inn and partnered with the local nonprofit Dorothy Day House to turn the motel into transitional housing.

Robbi Montoya, executive director of Dorothy Day, said plans are in place to help former park residents relocate to one of the organization’s other shelters and its transitional housing sites while staffers continue working with residents to find permanent housing.

“The permanent supportive housing way can be hard on people,” Montoya said, noting it can take anywhere from six months to a year to find someone a permanent home. In the meantime, her group has worked to help move former park residents into transitional housing, a task that she said has been no small feat. “We look at them as big successes.”

In the short term, Brookins plans on moving to another motel managed by Dorothy Day House. But in the long term, he hopes to find permanent housing in Berkeley.

“Berkeley did a lot for me, and it’s still doing a lot for me,” Brookins said. “It’s a place to stay.”


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