Berkeley's liberal image in question amid homeless crisis: 'The soul of our city is at stake'
Recent deaths challenge city’s identity as a bastion of humanitarian values and injects urgency into debate on how to address homelessness as rents are soaring
While nearly everyone in Berkeley agrees that housing costs are out of control, discussions on homelessness are among the most contentious to come before the city council. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
One morning in mid-January, after days of intense rain, Tom White trudged to the back of an empty, muddy lot he owns across from Berkeley high school. He noticed a mound against the fence, next to some old tarps.
“At first I thought it was another pile of garbage someone had dumped,” White said. Then he looked closer. “I realized that’s human hair, that’s a human shape. I just stood there and noticed there were no signs of life.”
A woman, clad in layers of sweaters, was soaked and doubled over in a squat. She held an empty bottle. White called 911 and the body of the woman, later identified as 55-year-old Laura Jadwin, was taken away by the coroner. She was one of at least four homeless people to die in the past few months on the streets of Berkeley, California.
The deaths, in the middle of one of the coldest, wettest winters in years, have challenged Berkeley’s idea of itself as a bastion of progressive and humanitarian values. They have also injected fresh urgency into a bitter debate over how to address homelessness when rents are soaring and affordable housing is vanishing.
“Literally the soul and the character of our city is at stake,” said Jesse Arreguin, Berkeley’s recently elected mayor. Homelessness, he said, “is a humanitarian crisis and it’s increasing every week. We have to address this issue more effectively.”
Yet today, Berkeley’s values are clashing with unyielding economic realities. In recent years, its downtown has exploded with pricey restaurants and upscale apartment buildings catering to young technologists and researchers. Nearly 900 units are now under construction or approved.
Berkeley median rents have soared more than 40% in the past three years, to $3,483 a month, according to real estate firm Zillow. Meanwhile the homeless population has grown from 680 in 2009 to probably more than 1,000 today, according to the mayor. Strikingly, this is around 1% of the city’s population.
“There is a direct association between how fast rents are growing and how much homelessness there is in cities,” said Svenja Gudell, Zillow’s chief economist.
A memorial in Berkeley for 55-year-old Laura Jadwin. Photograph: Rob Waters for the Guardian
White, the man who found Jadwin’s body, said he has been discouraged by the nimbyish attitude of some of his fellow Berkeleyans.
“They say, ‘Why do we have to build more housing in Berkeley? They can go live somewhere else.’ But I don’t think that’s going to address the problem of homelessness. We can’t build a wall and say, ‘Go live in Nevada’. We’re going to have to have a community approach.”
While nearly everyone in Berkeley agrees that housing costs are out of control, discussions on homelessness are among the most contentious to come before the city council.
But the so-called sit/lie measure outraged civil libertarians and progressives, who denounced it for scapegoating the vulnerable, “criminalizing” poverty and being out of step with the city’s history. After a rancorous campaign, it lost by a slim margin.
Three years later, following complaints from residents about aggressive behavior and unsanitary conditions, the council passed new measures aimed at homeless residents that opponents quickly dubbed “anti-poor laws”. They restrict to 2 square feet the amount of sidewalk space that can be taken up by people’s belongings, bar public urination or defecation, and require people who keep their possessions in shopping carts to move them every hour.
In response, a band of homeless activists known as First They Came for the Homeless set up a protest camp dubbed Liberty City in front of Berkeley’s old city hall. It grew to about 50 people before police evicted them after a two-week stay and arrested several campers. The group has since been ejected from several more sites.
A band of homeless activists known as First They Came for the Homeless set up a protest camp. Photograph: Rob Waters for the Guardian
Mike Zint, a spokesman and organizer, said the encampments provide a way for homeless people to protest being “treated as criminals because we’re poor”. They also offer a dignified alternative to crowded shelters, where, Zint said, people’s possessions are stolen, they are exposed to infections, and they sleep poorly before being “kicked out at 6 in the morning with all your gear”.
Early this year, the group set up a new camp with about 20 tents on a grassy, city-owned parcel. So far it has been tolerated by authorities. The camp is a mix of newcomers such as Ariah Inlerah, 33, a transgender woman who fled anti-gay violence in Bloomington, Indiana, and longtime Berkeley residents such as Brett Schnaper, a 55-year-old former cook who has been homeless since he lost his rent-controlled, $1,100-a-month apartment early last year.
To be fair, many Berkeleyans have great empathy for the city’s homeless residents. In December, as the weather was worsening, Arreguin and a progressive majority took control of the city council and began pushing for change. The city set up an emergency operations center to coordinate crisis housing and opened a 47-bed winter shelter, for instance.
But a fight is likely looming: any proposal to provide more services is likely to provoke backlash from residents who argue they will draw more homeless people to the city.
“Clearly we need fewer services, not more,” said someone who wrote on Nextdoor, an online forum where residents post about neighborhood issues, under the name Eric Friedman. “We need robust enforcement of our laws and criminal prosecution for violators. No camping. No crapping in public.”
The contradictions inherent in liberal Berkeley are exemplified by Patrick Kennedy, a developer of luxury housing whose company donated $10,000 to support the sit/lie measure four years ago. Now he wants to build tiny studio apartments for the homeless – modular units the size of shipping containers that can be stacked like Legos – and sees no inconsistency in his stance.
Brett Schnaper, center, and Mike Zint, right, at the First They Came for the Homeless encampment in Berkeley. Photograph: Rob Waters for the Guardian
“It’s a two-pronged approach,” he said. “I supported the ordinance because you can’t have people camping out on your sidewalks and maintain the businesses and other social activities. But I also support the city actively doing something to address the problem.”
However compassionate Berkeley tries to be, some obstacles are insurmountable. Take the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which is dispatching staff members armed with tablet computers to talk to homeless people and assess their needs.
Since the beginning of last year, the agency has placed 54 homeless people into housing, said Sharon Hawkins Leyden, the group’s director of client services. Yet only three have been able to stay in Berkeley, she said. The rest have been offered homes in Oakland, Stockton and even Sacramento, a city almost 80 miles away.
Berkeley rents, Hawkins said, are just too high.