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Berkeley votes for city-run homeless camp

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“We’re all tired. We need solutions.”

Rows of white and blue tents in a bare dirt field. One person is riding a bike between tents.
A similar camp in Modesto, California.
Photo courtesy of Berkeley City Council

Rather than breaking up homeless camps, the city of Berkeley has decided it can do one better.

The city council voted to plan for the opening of a city-managed homeless encampment of its own in the near future, hoping to maintain a safe and sanitary place for homeless relief even while assuring skeptical residents that it’s only temporary.

The proposal, introduced by Councilperson Kate Harrison, calls for a city-run center featuring wind-resistant tents, sanitary water and toilets, and trash pickup, all of which would be managed by city employees.

The first such site will likely be budgeted to accommodate 50 people. Harrison said at Tuesday’s city council meeting that she’d aim to have it running for less than a year, calling it a stopgap to help shelterless Berkeley residents during dangerous winter months while larger programs work to get them permanently housed.

“We’re all tired. We need solutions tomorrow also, but we need solutions now,” said Harrison, adding that the current system of rousting homeless camps “only to move it along to another area” wastes time and money.

Harrison highlighted a city-owned parcel on University Avenue as a possible site, but cautioned that there’s no set locale right now and that the city could select a different area.

Although the city council ultimately backed the plan (with two members, Lori Droste and Rashi Kesarwani, casting no votes), many seemed uncertain about the idea.

Droste argued that the plan wouldn’t solve the problems with unlicensed camps elsewhere, since nobody would be required to move. Councilmember Susan Wengraf fretted that city workers won’t be able to handle the workload of maintaining such a community.

One public speaker asked pointedly, “What is this council going to do to protect the people of Berkeley?” and referred to hypothetical future camp users as “guests” of Berkeley residents rather than residents themselves.

But there was a large outpouring of support from the general public as well, including an endorsement from East Bay Citizens For Action and by Moms 4 Housing lawyer Leah Simon-Weisberg.

“We’re going to be really ashamed [if] Berkeley is not doing this basic thing,” Simon-Weisberg told the city council, arguing that media scrutiny paid to neighboring Oakland in recent months would turn a harsh lens on Berkley if it appears afraid to act.

The body’s yes vote means that Berkeley staff will put together a more detailed proposal with a definite site picked out, and the city will consider whether to execute the idea at a yet-undetermined point in the future.

A Berkeley City Council majority voted yes Tuesday night to the idea of a sanctioned homeless camp pilot program, location to be determined, and have asked city staff to figure out the specifics and report back.