Berkeley Appears on List of Cities 'Least Friendly' to Homeless

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Although mostly known for its liberal mind set, Berkeley is the tenth "meanest" city to homeless people in the country, according a joint-study by two national non-profit organizations.

Berkeley rounded out the list of the top-ten least friendly cities for homeless people in a study published last Tuesday by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, both Washington DC-based non-profits.

City officials have rebutted claims that Berkeley is unfriendly, saying that the city has exceptional services for the homeless. The number of chronically homeless people in Berkeley decreased by 48 percent since 2007, according to a census released in early July by EveryOne Home, which coordinates the county's homeless agencies.

The study was carried out by examining local media reports and lawsuits and conducting interviews with local advocates and homeless service providers, said Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights program director at the law center.

The study then ranked the top ten "meanest cities" based on the number of what it called "anti-homeless laws" in the city, the frequency of the laws' enforcement and the attitude toward homeless people in the city, she said.

"A lot of homeless people are being arrested and cited for doing things they need to do to survive as a result of their homeless status," Ozdeger said. "If cities continue the criminalization of homelessness, they won't make progress in ending homelessness."

The report cited the Public Commons for Everyone initiative, which was passed in November 2007 by the Berkeley City Council, as a problematic policy and a reason behind the ranking.

The initiative increased the availability of public bathrooms, but allowed police to issue citations to persons lying on the sidewalk after one warning.

The initiative was directed at all residents-not just the homeless-to regulate street behavior, said Julie Sinai, Mayor Tom Bates' chief-of-staff.

"What Public Commons for Everyone was doing is to continue to target street behavior," Sinai said. "Whether or not you're housed or homeless, we don't care."

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said the residents of Berkeley are kind to the homeless.

"The people of Berkeley are probably No.1 in the country in tolerance and understanding of homeless people," Worthington said. "They have been used to seeing homeless people, talking to homeless people."

Michael Stoops, executive director of National Coalition for the Homeless, said the title "mean city" is not for the residents, but for the city itself.

"We're not calling the people of Berkeley mean: we're talking about governmental actions," Stoops said. "The governmental entities, ranging from the city council to the police department are mean."

Although the city should not be labeled as "mean," some of its policies have been problematic for homeless people, said Boona Cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency.

"Historically, Berkeley has been known for attempting to pass anti-panhandling, sitting, blocking the sidewalks, smoking-a lot of different kinds of laws," Cheema said. "For us to pretend that we're not a city that hasn't been doing that, it's just not true."

Although people in Berkeley are fairly friendly to the homeless, many people ignore them, said Jim, a homeless man who usually resides at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street.

"A lot of people won't even respond," he said. "They don't even think I exist."


Contact Paul Edison at [email protected]

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