Council OKs Public Commons Initiative

Will Kane covers city government. Contact him at [email protected]

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After almost two hours of public comment and council discussion, the Berkeley City Council approved a controversial plan last night that attempts to combat homelessness in the city.

The Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, authored by Mayor Tom Bates and first introduced in March, is billed as a “multi-pronged attack on homelessness” that increases homeless services as well as giving police more discretion in controlling street behavior.

For example, the plan will increase the number of public bathrooms available in various locations around Berkeley throughout the day but also allow police to cite a homeless individual for lodging on public property after only one warning.

To fund the increase in services, the plan will increase city-wide parking meter fees by 25 cents per hour—a move that is projected to increase revenue for the city by $1 million.

Most of the public comment at last night’s meeting was critical of what opponents called the “regressive” elements of the plan, including stricter rules against lying and sleeping on commercial sidewalks. But residents were generally supportive of the increase in services and a ban on smoking in many public areas.

To give some council members a chance to object to parts of the plan they didn’t like, the council took separate votes on those two aspects last night—both passed easily.

“The package is generally positive in terms of social services,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who supported the services but voted against the rule changes. “But the new laws that are basically penalizing homelessness are (wrong).”

But other council members said it was their duty as elected officials to help all the homeless in Berkeley, even if that meant some might have to go to jail.

“There are people on the street destroying themselves,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. “I think people need help moving and fixing their lives.”

Many members of the public applauded the council’s efforts to increase the services available to homeless individuals in Berkeley.

Besides an increased number of public bathrooms, the new services include a program to more efficiently allocate homeless shelter beds as well as providing more ways to educate individuals about the availability of low-income, permanent housing.

Other commenters said they felt Berkeley could easily provide support for homeless individuals without also further penalizing them for sleeping in public spaces.

“I refuse as a homeless person in Berkeley to have my life criminalized,” Elizabeth Gill said during public comment. “I am not going to be thrown in jail for being homeless.”

Besides the initiative, city staff have suggested ideas like a community court for minor infractions that would work closely with mental health professionals.

“The process continues to evolve. ... The steps before you tonight are just the first steps,” said Lauren Lempert, an aide to the mayor.


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