I joked about this with a few friends, but was amazed to find out it really happened.
After a series of homeless camps on street medians began popping up in prominent, central places such as street medians all over Berkeley, I noticed a number of people were concerned that public spaces were now being viewed as a “free for all” where anyone could just plop themselves down and set up a permanent home. I referred to many of these campers as “homesteaders”, when it became clear that they were actually really comfortable living in tents in street medians or on sidewalks, and were at times refusing available shelter spaces. For all intents and purposes, their tents were their “homes” and they were homesteaders on public land. With one small problem….street medians and other public land in cities is not available for homesteading or other permanent private use. Or is it?
The passivity of the city of Berkeley and Oakland with regard to many of these camps, suggested that some in the city Council were inclined to think people had a right to seize public lands for homesteading.
I joked, that there were other people with other needs in the city. Others who, perhaps, had homes…but were short on space. Due perhaps to the increasingly high cost of housing, (or perhaps just due to their own tendency for hoarding) some people were finding themselves with less and less space available for all their “stuff.” Wouldn’t they too qualify as people with a right to grab public space to appropriate for their private needs? As far as that goes, is anyone even checking credentials to see if we qualify in any way, when we just grab space for our private use in a park or sidewalk or a street median? Does one have to “prove” one is homeless, to have the “right” to set up a tent and store one’s things on a sidewalk or in a street median? I have not heard that cities are checking.
So, instead of being called homeless, these people who had run short of storage space in their homes could be called “space-less” people. And as I saw it, if public land was now apparently “up for grabs” for anyone who had a need, then they too had a valid claim on public land, just like the homeless-turned-homesteaders did. I then joked with some friends, tongue-in-cheek, saying that we should imitate the homeless-turned- homesteaders and we should set up a tent on a street median and start hauling over some of the things in our garages and backyards that we no longer had space to store, and use these public areas to store our stuff…..since it was clear that public space was up for grabs.
We had a little laugh and then went our ways.
But I had to gasp when I discovered that my joking idea for making a point about the problem with city passivity about public spaces, had actually come real!
I was looking over the 311 website for Oakland reading a couple reports on illegal dumping, when I noticed a report that someone had made for a large pile of items on a sidewalk in the Rockridge area of Oakland. It turns out that someone, a housed person who was not homeless but had their own apartment, had actually started appropriating a sidewalk in the Rockridge area, to store a large amount of belongings that he could not fit in his own apartment!
This led to a controversy in the neighborhood, because as you can see when reading this report, some people actually were defending this person’s “right” to use public space to store his belongings. And by failing to take action on the issue, the city of Oakland was enabling the appropriation of public lands such as sidewalks, street medians or other areas, for private uses, such as personal storage of one’s belongings.
Photo of his things on the public sidewalk:
So…the moral of the story is…that things we think are parodies of the potential results of city passivity, can become real. If cities dont’ start taking control of public spaces, these public spaces may end up increasingly appropriated or grabbed by people for a variety of private uses.
How much public space can people appropriate for their own personal uses? Does one have to be homeless to grab public space for oneself, or might one simply be “space-less”?
Here’s a story about something that posed a similar question in Brooklyn:
In Oakland, city officials noted with concern that some of the more massive homeless camps in that city, had apparently begun to attract illegal dumpers, who viewed the camps as convenient sites to just pitch their unwanted crap. These city officials expressed some concern/surprise over this, but why? I mean why were they at all surprised that illegal dumpers would not have a light bulb go on in their minds, when they saw that lots of other people were apparently getting away with being allowed to haul in a bunch of garbage onto public spaces like sidewalks or parks. That anyone in City Council was surprised by this reveals to me the notable and serious lack of imagination among City Council members. For me it was rather, why wouldnt’ people dump their garbage at homeless camps.? They had seen so clearly that the green light was being given to put one’s private belongings into public space. When you give people an invitation, regarding something that they have a need for, they are going to take you up on it! Sprawling, squalid, trash-filled homeless camps are that clear invite that simply screams, “bring your unwanted crap and dump it here!” What to do about the problem? The city considered. It foolishly tried to solve the problem by putting large dumpsters at homeless camps. But, you don’t solve the problem of inadvertently making it seem like you’re begging people to come dump their unwanted stuff, by making it even easier and more welcoming to dump your unwanted stuff. The dumpsters got filled up or torched.
Illegal dumping is a huge problem in Oakland, and in part I believe that’s due to the broken window effect, where squalor and blight invites more squalor and blight. It is likely also due to a seriously dysfunctional and anti-social subculture, wherein people have been schooled by the “soft bigotry” of liberal racism, that they are not responsible for their own actions. A number of people have been schooled by the liberal racism/bigotry of low expectations for years to believe that they aren’t expected to do like others and advance through their own efforts, but rather, since “there is structural racism” or “there is a fascist system controlling society” and the system is stacked against them, they are entitled just to sit back and hold out their hand, making little effort on their own behalf, since apparently they have no agency and no power, no free choice, no responsibility. They can just give up, and remain dependent on government to provide them everything they need in life. And a place to dump their garbage for free would clearly be part of that.
So if you want to end illegal dumping, we can start by teaching people that they are, in fact, responsible for their own behavior. As long as we keep preaching that it’s always the “system” to blame, then it’s the system (eg the city government) which is going to end up having to follow along after the anti-social folks it creates and pick up the trash they keep throwing out their car window.
Feb 3 2018 Update: An article about the appropriation of public space/land for private use has recently appeared in Berkeleyside, see it here: