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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: East Bay | Health, Housing, and Public Services
‘First They Came For The Homeless’ – Why Are We Here? A Berkeley Homelessness FAQ
WHAT IS 'FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE HOMELESS' ?
First They Came for the Homeless (FTCftH) is a group of unhoused people who have organized ourselves on the streets of Berkeley both for mutual support and to promote a political message regarding homelessness, homeless people, income inequality and the privatization of the commons in the United States.
WHAT DOES THE NAME MEAN?
The Martin Niemoller quotation that begins 'First they came for the...' is the origin.
Unhoused people in the United States have become some of the most oppressed people in the country. Old laws exist and new ones keep being proposed restricting their right to sleep, to sit, to be sheltered from the rain and cold, to receive food, to congregate, to hold onto any possessions not on their person, even to exist. On a good day they are told to "move along" by the local police - on a bad one their meager belongings are confiscated or destroyed and they are ticketed or arrested. Thus criminalized, their ability to utilize social services or get into available housing can be nullified.
The reference to Niemoller is not meant to suggest that the oppression of the homeless in the United State is comparable to the suffering and execution of tens of millions at the hands of the Nazis. But it is meant to make people think about what happens when we avert our eyes, when we refuse to recognize what is happening to people who are literally our neighbors. In the most bountiful country on Earth we have literally chosen not to figure out how to provide the most rudimentary shelter for some half a million people - and then we criminalize the actions of those unsheltered that result from this decision! This because "there is no one left to speak [for the homeless]."
WHAT IS OUR GROUP'S ORIGIN?
FTCftH coalesced in 2011 and first organized in Berkeley in spring, 2014 when we led an ongoing protest and boycott in front of Staples against the privatization of the Post Office. Staples was at that time engaged in negotiations to take over much Postal Service functionality at their stores, paying employees minimum wages with no job security instead of as workers being paid a living wage with a union to support them as Postal Service employees.
When the sale of the downtown Berkeley Post Office was announced in the fall of 2014, FTCftH moved our protest encampment to the exterior of the Allston St. property, providing a daily reminder to thousands of Berkeley residents of the impending sale and the plight of homeless people in Berkeley. With support from the Berkeley Post Office Defenders we established an information booth, a Community Drop Box, a small library, and a Community Garden on the grounds. We remained at the Post Office for seventeen months until being evicted by force by Postal Police in the spring of 2016. It would not be amiss to say that FTCftH played a significant role in preventing the sale of our Post Office - the downtown Berkeley Post Office has still not been sold and is technically not currently for sale according to the Postal Service.
In late fall of 2015 FTCftH set up Liberty City on the grounds of Old City Hall in special protest against anti-homeless ordinances being considered by Berkeley's City Council. In October, 2016, in partnership with the Disabled People Outside Project, we began our current set of protest encampments, the 'Poor Tour.'
WHAT ARE WE PROTESTING?
In general, we are protesting the treatment of homeless people in the US. In particular, we are protesting the treatment of homeless people by the City of Berkeley, and the lack of housing for the homeless in the Bay Area.
We have criticized ambiguous regulations and procedures at the Hub, Berkeley's centralized intake center for homeless services, which fail to help those in desperate need. We’ve criticized the lack of attempts to provide alternative housing by the City, despite the declaration of a shelter crisis. FTCftH has criticized the treatment of homeless people on the streets of Berkeley by police, and the lack of sufficient mental health capacity to help those on the street who are subject to mental illness. We are especially critical of the confiscation and frequent destruction of the belongings of the homeless, including such things as identification and heirlooms. We’ve criticized the building of large numbers of apartments and condos in Berkeley with few, if any, reserved for those on the streets.
WHAT IS THE 'POOR TOUR' ?
The Poor Tour, aka ‘Snubbed by the Hub,’ is a planned, political act: a set of encampments, signs, articles and events on public property in Berkeley by FTCftH and supported by members of Berkeley's housed community, designed to call attention to the plight of Berkeley's homeless and to elicit further community support. Since it began in early October, 2016, we have encamped at some fourteen different sites around town, only to be forcibly removed by the Berkeley police after days or, in some cases, weeks of being in one place.
WHOM DO WE SPEAK FOR?
We speak for ourselves, as people who have experienced homelessness and all it entails. Some of us have been homeless for a decade or longer.
It is one of the tragedies of homelessness that the nature of such makes it incredibly difficult to organize any kind of political effort. It is an understatement to say that there are no politicians "seeking the votes of the homeless." In truth the homeless have no representation and no voice except for their ability to be their own advocates.
We are one of the few, if not the only, organizations by the homeless, for the homeless, that seeks to have (and is having) a political effect. We believe that what few changes, albeit small, that have occurred in Berkeley can be directed attributed to FTCftH.
WHAT DO WE WANT?
What everyone wants. A place to call their own. With a door and a key. A place we can go to be alone when it suits us, and to have guests when we feel like it. To be treated with respect, not as society's pariahs. To be given the support from society we need to live fruitful lives.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH SHELTERS?
Imagine having to sleep every night in a room with dozens of complete strangers. Would the fear of contracting lice or of assault or theft of your essential property make it difficult to sleep? Add to that the fact that shelters fill up, and when they do, some who've lined up to stay in them are turned away. At overnight shelters you're allowed to carry in with you only a small amount of possessions; therefore, when lining up for a shelter bed, you must abandon gear you may possess for creating minimal comfort outside such as a tent you can stand up in, cooking equipment, and a cache of food. Whether you're turned away or not, these resources are lost to you.
If you are admitted to the shelter, you can't bring your pet, or stay with your significant other. You are subject to rules and regulations that many describe as being treated like a small child. You must leave very early in the morning - no matter the weather - and make your way to whatever daytime sanctuary you can find, which can be very difficult for disabled homeless persons who comprise a significant portion of the unsheltered population.
If your goal as a homeless person is to get off the street and into housing, making that happen is made much harder without a 24/7 location to store your possessions and trusted community members to keep them from being confiscated by police while you keep appointments with doctors, social service caseworkers, potential employers, etc.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH NAVIGATION CENTERS?
Navigation Centers are a step up from shelters. In theory they allow entire communities of homeless people to enter and stay with each other, also including pets. They provide a place to stay around the clock, secure storage for belongings, and one is allowed to come and go as one pleases. They provide social workers to help people obtain benefits, get access to medical treatment and deal with other problems.
What they do not provide is a place to call your own.
A Navigation Center is supposed to be a temporary (weeks or months) place to be - on the road to permanent shelter. The foremost problem with a theoretical Navigation Center in Berkeley is that the housing crisis is so acute that there is no path out of the Navigation Center for the vast majority of the people who might come. Without some kind of housing to move people to from a Navigation Center the system will be just as clogged as it is now. If homeless people were certain they were to be getting "a place to call their own" within a couple of months of moving to a Navigation Center many would likely take that offer. Alas, such is only a dream as things stand.
WHY SANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS?
We are all aware of lone homeless people sleeping in doorways and under bushes - even if we avert our eyes. There are hundreds of people who do so in Berkeley, and thousands in Alameda County. For the vast majority, it is a bad thing to be homeless, but it is much worse to be homeless and alone.
An encampment provides a limited degree of protection and safety, shelter from the elements in a tent, others to watch your belongings, people to share meals and stories with, and much else.
A sanctioned encampment provides additional security - the knowledge that if you stay within the law, the police aren't going to come, force you to move and destroy your belongings.
A sanctioned encampment is inexpensive - for the cost of a few portapotties and trash pickup, a City can ensure that twenty to thirty of its residents are not facing the elements each night and have a semi-secure place to be. When a City has no available housing, sanctioned encampments provide a humane and respectful way for a City to interact with some of its homeless residents. A sanctioned encampment provides a limited amount of privacy to individuals, unlike shelters or (the much more expensive) Navigation Centers, and has no restrictions on pets or visitors.
A sanctioned encampment is a good environment for those in it and its neighbors because rules of behavior, as proposed by FTCftH, include no dangerous drugs or alcohol and noise curfews. A sanctioned encampment can provide the opportunity for significant community support, as we have seen these last months. And it provides a chance, for those in the community who do not already know their homeless neighbors, to do so.
A sanctioned encampment does not make sense for all of a City's homeless. No one solution does. Parents with kids need four walls. The severely mentally ill need treatment in a long term and caring facility, away from the elements. Those addicted to debilitating drugs need special attention. Some people will choose to live alone. But for many, in lieu of a place to call their own, a sanctioned encampment makes a lot of sense.
WHAT DOES BERKELEY HAVE AGAINST SANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS?
Oakland, Santa Rosa and Seattle have successfully created some encampments. We fail to understand why Berkeley doesn’t do the same. We hypothesize that the sight of pitched tents, however organized and neat, causes a visceral reaction in many housed people, one that passing five, ten or even twenty homeless people sleeping in doorways or sitting on the sidewalk does not. While a person could be thinking to themselves "Wow! That's twenty people who would otherwise be on the street" what people apparently think when they see an encampment is "OMG. There are tents visible in my neighborhood and people near my house who would otherwise be sleeping in doorways!"
IF SANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS COST LESS THAN THE COST OF POLICE RAIDS, WHY ISN'T BERKELEY WORKING WITH FTCFTH INSTEAD OF AGAINST THEM?
Exactly how much all the police raids have cost the City of Berkeley we don’t know, but common sense tell us that but overtime (dozens of police and other City workers at 5:00 AM!), planning, followup and the opportunity cost of all that time and effort not being devoted to things of more import has to be quite high. Not to mention the potential liability from lawsuits against the City for violations of civil liberties and basic rights that are in the process of being assembled.
We don't know why, after FTCftH sat down with the City Council's Ad Hoc Committee on Sanctioned Encampments in late October, was ready to and did negotiate in good faith, days later the Ad Hoc Committee dismissed out of hand the idea of a sanctioned encampment.
We don't know why, on December 13th, the newly elected City Council again dismissed the idea of a sanctioned encampment and a moratorium on police raids, and made no effort to work with us; this after our new Mayor declared that homelessness was his top priority.
IF SANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS EXIST IN OTHER PLACES LIKE OAKLAND, SANTA ROSA AND SEATTLE, WHY CAN'T BERKELEY CREATE ONE OR TWO?
We don't know. The declaration of a shelter emergency gives the City of Berkeley all the power it needs to do whatever it takes to house the homeless on public, or publicly leased, land. The bottom line is that there is no reason we know of other than the lack of political will.
IF ALTERNATIVE HOUSING IS ACCEPTABLE TO MANY HOMELESS PEOPLE, AND COSTS WAY LESS THAN TRADITIONAL HOUSING, WHY ISN'T BERKELEY BUYING/BUILDING SUCH UNITS?
We don't know.
Traditional affordable units cost between $200,000 and $350,000 per. Tiny Homes cost between $5,000 and $20,000 per unit. Converted shipping containers, another oft-talked-about option, have a similar price range. Refugee-style shelters can cost as little as $3,000 per unit. All of these provide someone "a place they can call their own." They may be small, they may not have all of the amenities, or even any. But they are a far step up from a shelter, a sanctioned encampment or a navigation center.
Traditional affordable units take years to plan and build - pre-made, pre-configured tiny homes can be ordered and placed on a lot in a month or two.
For families in Berkeley to qualify for affordable housing, their income must be less than $60,000 per year. But there are many who must live on fixed incomes (SSI, SSD, Social Security Retirement benefits) whose annual income is around $20,000. While they qualify for "affordable housing," landlords prefer to rent to those who can pay the most for those units. Greater availability of truly affordable housing, and the availability of alternative housing options, would acknowledge the existence of those who are effectively priced out of the housing market and those who have no income to speak of.
BUT BERKELEY CAN'T SOLVE HOMELESSNESS... WHAT'S THE POINT?
If we had a dollar for every time we've seen the argument that 'homelessness is a [national, statewide, regional] problem; it needs a [national, statewide, regional] solution and therefore it is futile for Berkeley to try anything.' we would have enough money to solve the homelessness crisis.
Seriously, it is true that homelessness is a national, statewide, regional and local problem. It is even more true that solutions are not going to come from a Trump administration. It is conceivable that the State of California might someday do something about the problem, but so far what it has proposed, yet alone done, has been as a drop in an ocean. And lastly there is no such thing as a regional government! Waiting for a "regional" solution is akin to Waiting for Godot.
(If we were content to wait for a "regional" solution to the minimum wage crisis the politicians would still be talking and no cities' minimum wage would be above the state minimum. But a few cities started the ball rolling and now Richmond, El Cerrito, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland and San Leandro, as well as San Francisco, San Jose and other peninsula cities, have significantly higher minimum wages.
We believe that the only practical way to begin solving the problem is for cities like Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco to act as testbeds, catalyzing efforts elsewhere with their successes.
The path of that success is dictated by the math and practicality - Neither Alameda County nor its cities can build their way out of homelessness at $275,000 a unit and a market rate rent level no one can afford to pay anyway. But at $10,000 a unit, applied to some of the 4,000 homeless people in Alameda County? That's $40,000,000, a very small percentage of the combined budgets of Alameda County and its cities. It's really doable.
Berkeley could take the lead. It could start working with the homeless, instead of just for and around them. It could start building, buying and installing alternative housing options, instead of politicians endlessly mouthing "affordable housing" while real estate developers laugh all the way to the bank. It could work with Oakland and Alameda County on joint projects.
It could. It hasn't. Meanwhile it spends money using police to further oppress those among us who have the least.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If you live in Berkeley you can call your City Council member and tell them you want to see alternative housing for the homeless. You can tell them that you support sanctioned encampments until such time as Navigation Centers AND the destination housing that is a necessary part of such a program is in place. You can tell them to stop doing things "for" the unhoused and start doing things WITH the input of the homeless who, after all, know what our needs are.
No matter where you live you can act, before there is no one left to protest.