This is an article exploring a situation that is currently ongoing in Berkeley, California, where a group of homeless individuals, calling themselves First They Came for the Homeless is engaged in a series of repeated protest encampments, whereby they are demanding that the city do more for the homeless and/or provide them housing. THey have a FaceBook page here
They have been offered shelter — the city has approached them with homeless service personnel, offering services, as well as free shelter at a homeless shelter in the city. However, this group is refusing the shelter offered, and insists it will continue to set up prominent protest camps (which they have been doing in central places in the city, typically in street medians) until its demands for housing are met.
This group has set up one large protest encampment after another since October 2016, and has been evicted from these prominently placed encampments, as of this date, 16 times since then. This ongoing protest activity has been referred to as “The Poor Tour” and is being chronicled on this website .
One of the mantras of this group is “houses, not shelters”. They feel that homeless shelters are not acceptable, because the shelters are dirty, or have mentally ill or violent people in them, who disturb others. Based on news articles about the group and statements that have come from them at different times, they seem to be asking for the city to provide free permanent housing for them — specifically, Tiny Houses. Alternatively, they are asking the city to designate a place where they would be permitted to camp. The city of Berkeley, like most cities in the USA, currently has no sanctioned campgrounds for the homeless. Some cities such as Seattle do have such camps, and some cities, such as Salt Lake City, and New York City, do actually attempt to provide non- shelter type housing for all the homeless. Salt Lake City has set up a program which seeks to provide permanent housing for all homeless people, and New York City offers indoor housing, not just in homeless shelters, but often in hotels.
Each time this large protest/homeless group is evicted from one of their prominent camps set up in the center of the city (not in dingy periphery spots, under freeways or in industrial areas, which is where the homeless most often set up camps), it costs the city tens of thousands of dollars to evict them. A certain procedure must be followed, which is expensive because of the resources required. Advance notice must be given of the eviction. But, similarly to tenants in apartments who don’t vacate the premises before the last hour when the sheriff arrives, the “First they Came” group never vacates an area when given eviction notice. They force the police to physically remove them and their property, thus greatly amplifying the cost of the whole procedure. At the time of eviction, a dozen or more police officers need to be involved, because of the size of the encampment and the number of individuals police have to deal with. Public works officials and trucks must be on hand, prepared to move large amounts of belongings, which they are legally required to store somewhere. Then, the city often has to fence off the area which was used for the illegal camp, in order to restore the grassy area, which was damaged by camping on it.
At this point the city of Berkeley has spent over $300,000.00 in the numerous evictions of this one protest encampment. The First They Came group argues, rather disingenuously, that instead of repeatedly evicting them, the City should be spending this money to really help the homeless or provide housing for them. There is merit in the argument that cities, states and the nation as a whole need to do more to find effective solutions for homelessness. However, Berkeley already does much more for the homeless than many cities, and has plans to do still more. In spite of that, this group could be viewed as attempting to extort the city, saying: “If you dont’ give us exactly what we want, we’ll continue to cost you a lot of money by engaging in illegal camping in very prominent and inappropriate places.”
Berkeley Council Member Kriss Worthington, as liberal as they come, said this about this group and the city’s efforts on homelessness:
Our wonderful Mayor Arreguin has announced ending homeless as his first priority. At our first regular Council meeting we made enormous progress.
We doubled the number of winter storm shelter beds.
We extended shelter hours to twelve hours per night.
We increased daytime Warming Centers.
We started work to create our first Navigation Center.
We rescinded the anti-homeless two foot law adopted last year.
We reinstated funding cut in June to the Berkeley Drop In Center
We reinstated funding cut in June to Youth Spirit Artworks.
All of these are being implemented immediately.
We also appointed a four person committee to come up with additional solutions.
They will explore possible encampment locations and policies.
Also will look at property recovery practices and policy.
One encampment keeps refusing to accept any services, even though their whole group could be inside all day and all night. They pick campsites that break multiple laws and create health and safety problems, but insist they have a “right” to camp even though they are causing numerous problems.
Some of them keep verbally attacking Mayor Arreguin and our wonderful City Manager who are both working very hard and coming up with faster solutions than I have ever seen any government do.
I have fought fiercely to defend homeless people from repressive politicians and laws.
I have been arrested protesting anti-homeless laws from Frank Jordan and Gavin Newsom. I fought against measures N and O in Berkeley, and against Measure S.
I am still trying to work with this group despite their outrageous insulting and false statements, Please do not accept their false portrayal of the situation in Berkeley..
We have accomplished much and are working on so much more.”
Berkeley City Councilmember, District 7
The First They Came group has sought out legal representation, and found it in the law office of Dan Siegel et al, and is now threatening to sue the City of Berkeley, if the city continues to evict them from the spots where they set up illegal campsites. (As of this writing they remain at a site they chose 30 days ago, which is in a grassy street median, adjacent to the BART tracks at the Berkeley/Oakland border). The attorneys for FTC group have advanced these arguments, which they have presented to the Mayor of Berkeley and Berkeley City Council members. Essentially they are claiming that the evictions of this group violate the following laws:
1. Fourth Amendment violations regarding unlawful seizure of property
2. First Amendment violations regarding retaliation for protected speech
3. Americans with Disabilities Act violations regarding failing to accomodate persons with disabilities
4. Bane Act California Civil Code 52.1 violations in interference with a constitutionally protected right
5. California Civil Code 2080.1 violations in failing to provide a receipt for property
A few members of the FTC group did sue the city, and I explore that lawsuit in another article, here.
I’ll look at these some implication of these arguments below.
There is a case in Idaho which suggests cities cannot prohibit the homeless to sleep or lie in public places when there is no other alternative shelter available for them. However, the First They Came group does not really fit the situation in Boise Idaho since the City of Berkeley had shelter space available for them and repeatedly offered it to them. Moreover, the City of Berkeley, unlike in the Boise Idaho case, was not attempting to prohibit any and all use of public spaces for lying and sleeping, but was instead removing large encampments from places which could reasonably be characterized as particularly inappropriate — such as street medians, the grassy areas in the middle of a public thoroughfare. In the Boise case the City of Boise attempted to legally prohibit all camping and sleeping in public places that was done without permission of the owner thereof.
The issue of what local, state and/or federal governments are or are not obligated to provide for the homeless, as well as what cities are obligated or not obligated to do for their housed residents and businesses who are negatively impacted by homeless individuals’ appropriation of public spaces as private living spaces, is one in need of much more development and exploration. In the California cities where I’ve observed this issue, it seems that the typical dilemma is this: the city creates shelters for the homeless, but the homeless don’t like the shelters and prefer to sleep or camp in vehicles, on sidewalks, in parks or other public places. The places chosen by the homeless are typically but not always rather out-of-the-way areas such as in industrial areas, under freeway overpasses, in vacant lots, or in corners of less used parks. I see this is as a kind of “crevice dwelling” — the homeless are seeking out and occupying the various crevices and interstices in the webwork of private and public property. Cities will allow encampments to remain for a certain period of time, then evict them and clean up the area when the camp becomes too large or dirty or when there are many complaints, and then the camps either move elsewhere, or set up in exactly the same spot after the cleanup is done.
I have never heard of a similar group attempting what this First They Came group is doing, which is to camp repeatedly in very prominent locations, such as the center of town, or right on the lawn of City Hall, in the middle of a major street, and argue that they have a right to be there. This situation is interesting because the level of entitlement of the individuals in this particular group. This entitlement could be viewed as running parallel with that of many who live in the Bay Area and find it difficult to afford the high cost of housing in the area, who claim that “housing is a right.” To what extent might it be true that “housing is a human right”, and to what extent is it arrogant to demand that the government provide housing for people that they themselves cannot afford, particularly when they are demanding housing in an area of the nation such as the Bay Area, where housing is much more expensive than in most other parts of the country? Even if we allow that housing is a human right, in some form, does this mean that everyone should be permitted to pick and choose exactly where they want to live, and expect the government to house them in the most expensive places to live?
Homeless individuals in many cities have set up large camps — and they generally will complain when the camp is cleared out — but my impression, gleaned from reading newspaper reports about these situations, is that these campers usually feel like they have out-gamed the system, because they are able to come right back and set up the very same camp soon after it has been cleared out. For instance, this has happened numerous times at the Gilman street camp in West Berkeley. It’s happened many times with homeless camps in San Francisco, such as the one on Division Street. It’s quite difficult for cities to really permanently close a camp area without erecting fencing, and sometimes they set up fencing which then gets pulled down.
But in this case, these individuals are threatening legal action if the city attempts to evict them from space where they are illegally camping. What will the city do about this? I’m interested to find out. It’s ironic, but predictable, that this is happening in one of the most liberal/progressive cities in the world — which already does so much for the homeless and other poor and marginalized people with all the services it provides. But there’s much truth in the saying “A good deed never goes unpunished.”
The Homeless Camp at Albany Bulb and its aftermath
The city of Albany found that out when it first attempted to address the issue of homelessness in its borders by directing the local homeless to camp at the Albany Bulb, a park at the edge of the San Francisco Bay. The homeless liked the Albany Bulb so much that the homeless population grew, and the encampments swelled, until the point where this public park was full of trash and large camps. Once when walking there, I even saw one homeless camp containing a large chain link kennel with a barking Pit Bull dog– this and other situations were why many of the general public no longer felt safe hiking at the Bulb. I recall going walking there and feeling uncomfortable a few times when I’d followed a trail and end up inadvertently in someone’s “living room.”
This isn’t the type of thing most people want to experience in public parks. The energy at the Bulb could be wonderfully whimsical, as the place was a former landfill and a lot of fascinating art and found material sculptures had been set up there. I appreciated anyone who contributed to that art, as many of those camping there did. But as I read news articles on the issue, I gleaned that many area residents had the same perspective as I did, which was that we felt it was not workable to combine a public park with a self-governed homeless encampment.
Eventually, the city of Albany agreed that the situation at the Bulb had become problematic, and so it moved to close down the homeless camps. This was a costly process, not the least because the homeless obtained legal representation from attorney Osha Neumann’s office, who sued the city of Albany attempting to block the eviction/moving of the homeless out of the park. Albany ended up having to pay thousands to people who were illegally camping on public land, to get them off of it. For the campers to sue, arguing that the government has no right to remove them from camps they have no right to be in the first place, strikes me as both unfair, and entitled. . It’s as if you let a friend sleep in your backyard, and then he not only refused to leave when you asked him to go, but sued you, arguing he had a right to remain in your yard as that was his “property.” Would you ever be likely to allow anyone else to sleep in your yard again?
Exploring Implications of the First They Came Groups’ Demands
One of the expressed wishes of the First they Came group, is that the city provide them with land to camp on. This request or demand raises questions.
First, it reflects right back on the problematic situation at Albany Bulb, and how the city of Albany set itself up for an expensive fight just to get back its own land, when it did homeless people the kindness of allowing them a place to stay. If Berkeley were to provide a group with a place to camp, and then find that the situation wasn’t going as well as hoped, how expensive would it be to then remove the campers from the spot, given the very real possibility that the homeless group would get assistance from a local law office and the city could be sued in its attempt to repossess its own property.
Secondly, neither Berkeley, nor San Franciso, nor many urban areas, are places with a lot of available land just waiting to be handed out to indigent people in need. In fact even those with the ability to pay for the land they want, can’t find any available in the inner Bay Area, given the demand for space. It’s much more likely that space for a city-sanctioned campground (and several do exist) could be found in cities or towns in the US which are less dense.
Third, even if there is land available for use to provide housing for the homeless — is a campground the most efficient way of providing such housing? The number of people who can be housed per square foot in a campground, is likely to be lower than could be housed in a barracks style warehouse shelter or navigation center, particularly one of two or more stories.
Fourth, should the city of Berkeley, or any city for that matter, be extorted into providing a particular type of housing for the homeless? The city is being essentially pushed into a corner by a group of homeless individuals who appropriate a public space, then issue demands that the city provide them the kind of housing they want, and also issue threats that they will file a class action lawsuit if they are removed from the site they’ve appropriated without being given the type of housing they demand.
Fifth, if there are already homeless shelters in place, as well as government assistance and welfare programs (including housing subsidies, Section 8 housing) which provide support to the homeless, to what extent are individual cities responsible for providing more?
Sixth, if a city is going to give out free housing, or create more subsidized housing, should those who are doing the least to support themselves be the recipients thereof? What of the claims by those who are not homeless, but are struggling mightily with the gap between what their wages can purchase, and the cost of housing in their area? Which claim is greater — that of the homeless, who dont’ work and have little or no income, and who can’t contribute towards what they demand be provided for them, or that of those who do work and have income, and can contribute something for the housing they need?
It seems to me that while there is an ethical case to be made that we should help those who are in greatest need, there is an equally compelling case to be made that it’s unethical to give most resources to those who do the least to help themselves and demand the most aid from their government. If we continue to give more and more aid and resources to those who aren’t doing anything to help themselves, but who instead may be causing nuisance for their community with drug addiction, dependency, and perhaps even petty theft and other crimes, then we are rewarding lack of effort and irresponsibility, if not substance abuse and other problematic behaviors as well. A large number of the homeless are either struggling with mental illness or substance abuse. A city of Berkeley Homeless Task Force study (page 3) has identified 40% of the homeless as chronic substance abusers.
The demand for land to be permitted to camp on, also calls into question the wisdom of cities either not having or not adequately enforcing laws which would prevent appropriation of public space for private use. The court ruling in the Boise Idaho situation, clarifies something that seems common sensical: a city can’t prohibit homeless people sleeping in the street if it doesn’t provide them a place to sleep. The court ruled that attempts to do so, constituted a violation of the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and this seems reasonable. However, this court ruling leaves completely unexplored the question of how a city might regulate the appropriation of public spaces for private use, if it does provide shelter for the homeless. It seems to me that while a city cannot force individuals to stay in a homeless shelter, it could prohibit homeless individuals from appropriating public spaces to use for their private camps, if the city had in fact provided adequate alternate shelter for these individuals. I believe this is the route that cities need to go.
If cities spend money building homeless shelters, or even building permanent housing for the homeless, and homeless individuals are permitted to refuse such housing, claiming that they dont’ like it or that there are mentally ill people there whom they don’t want to have to interact with, and camp on street medians and public parks instead, then the city has lost the ability to keep itself from descending into a slum, with shantytowns popping up in any park, vacant lot or street corner. If cities had no way to legally prevent any city park from being commandeered by a group of homeless individuals for use as their private campground, then there would be little incentive for any city to build or retain public parks. In which case, such spaces might as well be converted to retail stores, office buildings, or private residences, all of which would involve a loss of recreational space but would provide a bulwark against illegal camping, appropriation of public space for private use, and the slum-ification of the city.
I believe that cities must retain control of their public spaces, and find methods for working with the homeless, that permit them to retain this control.
Update December 2017
From late 2016 to October 2017, the First they Came for the Homeless group was camped at the “Here There” sculpture at the Berkeley/Oakland border. They stayed there until a woman was found dead in the camp, at which point they were evicted by BART, which owned the land they were camping on. Predictably, they wasted the city’s time and money and had their attorney representatives sue the city and BART to try to stop the eviction. Judge Alsup who was overseeing the case, postponed the eviction for a week, but eventually allowed BART to remove the campers. What other result could have been possible? Would it be expected that the judge would refuse to allow BART to remove people illegally camping and occupying the land it owned?
The FTC group then seemed to split into three. One group stayed at the Here/There site but moved off the BART property and on the lawn between the sidewalk and the street. The majority of the group went to camp on the lawn at Old City Hall, and the third group went to camp on the street median at Adeline and Oregon street, across from Berkeley Bowl. This was the exact spot where the FTC had camped previously in 2016 and from where they had been evicted. It had been clearly stated at that time by the city in their notice, that it was illegal to camp in this spot. http://www.berkeleyemergencyshelter.org/pdf/PublicNotice120516.pdf
So it seems to be a real merry go round, round and round we go, when we stop this nonsense of continually setting up camps in street medians no one knows.
On December 11 2017, the city Parks and Rec department came to remove the picnic table from the street median at Adeline and Oregon where there are now 7 tents set up. This video https://youtu.be/hUvOG4gqVpU was made by one of the campers there over the incident. It’s too bad the city only removed the picnic table and not all the tents and the entire camp. Many of us are tired of the level of entitlement and the amount of bullying of the city that the FTC group and their attorneys have been involved in, as well as the serial nuisance. I dont’ think committing this nuisance is actually helping their cause, as it just pisses people off.
Speaking of Entitlement
People who’ve been homeless are being given housing…but apparently after being given housing, some expect to pay less than $300 a month rent for the rest of their lives in one of the most expensive places to live in the nation. Mike Zint, one of the members of the First They Came for the Homeless group, is complaining that his rent is being raised from its current level of $268 a month. Mike Lee also apparently got rapid rehousing and is whining about the same thing.
Those who obtained housing through the “Rapid Rehousing” program, such as Mike Zint, get time limited financial help (typically 6 months or less) to pay for the housing, as is explained on the info page for Rapid ReHousing. They dont’ get permanent subsidies as do those with Section 8 vouchers. As Councilmember Linda Maio explained it
“Anyone who has been housed through the Hub using rapid rehousing dollars has been told that the rental subsidy is time-limited and that there are step increases in rent leading towards the person sustaining the rent themselves. Rapid rehousing is very different from permanent rental subsidies such as Section 8 that limit the rent to 30% of income. Some people have gotten room mates to offset the costs. I wish it were different. “
This means that those who have no intention of ever working for a living, or aren’t able to work but have to live on disability payments, should not plan to settle down in one of the most expensive places in the nation to live. Their money would go a lot farther in Memphis, Detroit, or Tucson or a thousand other places.
Are we being careless in how we provide housing assistance to the homeless?
There’s another problem that this complaint from Mike Zint and a similar one by Mike Lee reveal. The fact that these two Mikes, two very prominent “homeless activists”, both received assistance to get into housing, without understanding what they were getting into, reveals a potentially serious problem in the way housing assistance is provided. If very prominent homeless activists can’t even understand the terms of their housing support, how likely is it that other homeless will fail to comprehend what is being expected of them?
Both the Mikes received Rapid ReHousing assistance, which function by getting people rapidly rehoused with temporary financial support, while the end goal is that they are able to carry their own weight and pay their own way. It makes no sense to give Rapid ReHousing help and temporary financial support to people who are either incapable or unwilling to eventually pay their own way. In effect, this temporary finanical support (particularly in a region with very high housing costs ) is completely wasted on people like these two Mikes, who want or need to be in a position of permanent dependence on government handouts.
With limited funds to offer, we can’t afford to do things unwisely like this. Save the Rapid ReHousing help for those who have a serious commitment and a reasonable ability to stand on their own two feet.
So…moral of the story is…I think it would be worthwhile doing a study to track how many people who are given Rapid ReHousing Dollars, with the goal of getting them on their own two feet and paying their own way, are never able to pay their own way and end up homeless again.
In other words, start tracking wasted money and pointless assistance and the “merry go round” effect of the serial homeless.
Back to the First They Came for the Homeless On the Lawn at City Hall
So the other group of “First They Came” campers, after being evicted from the Here/There sculpture site, moved to the lawn at Old City Hall in Berkeley, at Martin Luther King Jr Way and Center St. As of November 10 2017 I counted 10 tents on the lawn there. As of February 8 2018, on the day the camp was dismantled, police counted 39 tents there. So the number of campers roughly quadrupled over a period of 3 months. At this rate of continued growth, there would be 160 tents at 6 months, and 500 tents at a year.
By February, after filling up the lawn south of the walkway to the building, they then began fill up the lawn to the north of the walkway. I began to think the camp would expand to the sidewalks and the lawn of the police building. There were two fires at the camp. One on January 11 2018, and the other on February 6 2018.
After the second fire, the city finally regained some sense and notified all the campers that they all would have to leave. See also here.
Then on Feb 8th the city dismantled the camp. However, the city is also exploring giving the First They Came group a permanent place for them to have a tent city, via a recommendation made to them by the city’s Homeless Commission. The City Manager’s office wisely opposes taking such action:
If the city did succomb to the demands of one special group, that they be given free land, we may well wonder, why wouldn’t any other random group of people who want free land, come up with their own catchy name, and demand the same. So the saga continues.
The cleaned up City Hall lawn, fenced off: