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Krazy Kalifornia: Disturbing Behaviors in Public Places — and the Need for Reform in Mental Health Care

In this article I will present examples  — either photos, videos, or narratives from witnesses — of disturbing behaviors in public places.  The intent here is to visually represent the enormous need we have for an effective way of treating those with serious mental illness in our society.  Our present system for caring for these people is not only extremely ineffective, but quite dangerous. It endangers both those with serious mental illness, by repeatedly putting them back on the street where they are unable to care for themselves, and it endangers the public, who are too often victims, (and sometimes the murdered victims) of criminal acts by those with serious mental illness.

See this article where it’s stated that Alameda County has the highest rate of 5150 calls in the entire state:

“In Alameda every 48 minutes someone is placed in a costly emergency psychiatric evaluation because he or she has been deemed a danger to himself or herself or others,” wrote Alameda Supervisor Wilma Chan in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. “This is the highest rate in the state of California.”

If Alameda County has implemented Laura’s Law, why are those with serious mental illness still on a merry-go-round, circulating in and out of psychiatric institutions on dozens of 3 day holds, but never getting long lasting and effective treatment?

Krazy Kalifornia No. 1: Man in Berkeley outside Starbucks at Ashby and Telegraph Avenues, November 25 2017

https://youtu.be/liuMbWteZ3s

Krazy Kalifornia No. 2: Man talking loudly to himself using obscenities, at Glen Park BART station:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1DITOu0IuM

Man with serious mental illness hitting himself at bus stop:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_613707241&feature=iv&src_vid=X1DITOu0IuM&v=stkiPgmDvWU

Mentally ill man talking to himself at bus stop:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XLngez6lRE

Seriously mentally ill person and angry crazy person — very tense situation for everyone else on the bus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_vr9htAx5Q

Woman with serious mental illness on bus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYnQ3jqtnbs

Mentally ill homeless woman on SF bus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFDWKrdfZqw

Mentally ill person in Santa Rosa on the sidewalk:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMrJUPN_OyM

Mentally ill man begging in BART:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsq3CQKy034

Disturbed person on BART:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZxs20caHsc

Crazy person assaults someone on BART

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z3hsXWmikI&has_verified=1

Disturbed person on BART

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOJMeLDSEc0

Disturbing behavior in San Francisco

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOzdgvEj7ZI

Disturbed man harming himself on public streets

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSEPH7LJRMY

Disturbing behavior on the street in SF

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVR8BMkCeiQ

Passed out on the street

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lR7rl9BszU

Disturbed person on street in San Francisco

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MI3mNfvp_2M

Bizzare behavior on Market St SF

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwDseE6l0xY

Disturbing behavior on the street in SF

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXtMDLpyHEY

Doing drugs openly on the street

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mONM6UEIq-s

Aggressive panhandling

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ThmGO-aVpQ

Street bum — young man on streets for 7 years

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVSo_IorJDs

Mentally ill on SF Street

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akCU6dJnN7E

Crazy man begging for money

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFbcxKI-VzQ

Yelling throughout the streets

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-hnIUGCrWA

Disturbing yelling on the street

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmFOPj1746A

Disturbed person assaults others on the street

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNWcvRsj41I

Nasty crazy behavior on the street in NYC

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuGM8nur4BM

Crazy woman on SF bus

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aoe8MrShj4o

More Crazy ladies on buses

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eg031KmMjDk

Lots of crazy ladies on buses

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4VrgRegym8

Mores crazy ladies on buses

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ULYEmJIztg

Crazy lady on train harrasses people,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQUL_5lZMEI

Crazy lady on subway harassing other passengers

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7liTMWD1k_0

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Map of Homelessness in Berkeley

During November  2017 a team of us began to undertake a research project to attempt to document all the homeless camps and sites, as well as people living in vehicles, throughout the city of Berkeley, as well as in adjacent areas in North Oakland and Emeryville. (Eventually, we plan to cover the whole city of Oakland as well…but this will take some time…and if we are very ambitious…maybe we’ll expand to San Francisco! )|

See our map here:

In order to do this research, we set out to drive, walk or bicycle  every single street in Berkeley and adjacent areas. In addition, we expect that there are some homeless people setting up camps in Tilden Park and other regional parks in the hills.  We will try to explore the parks to see if we can find any such, but they may be well hidden and not easy to find.  Some of us have found such camps in the past,  in Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve and in the area just above the Cal Stadium.

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Bus at 5th Street and Camelia

 

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Bus with Utah License plate, Grayson Avenue

 

A homeless camp/site is here defined any place that one or more homeless people has set up a tent or belongings which involves regular appropriation of public space for purposes of residence/shelter. Simply bedding down at a diffferent random place on the sidewalk each day does not count as a “site” under this definition since it is not a fixed location.

In contrast to homeless research projects which are more needs-based, focusing on the numbers of individuals or their specific needs,  this approach is more geographical and visually based, focusing on the impact of homeless camps/cars on neighborhoods and communities.

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Man working on RV with pile of bikes beside, near Berkeley Transfer Station

 

Hence, rather than documenting individual persons, we are attempting to document fixed locations and/or actual physical vehicles which are used as residences in public places.

Some may point out that people living in RVs in the city, may not be “homeless”, but might simply be travelers or retirees, here temporarily.  As we see it, the issue of which vehicle dwellers are homeless and which are not, is not a black and white issue but one with shades of grey.  As well, regardless their own view of their vehicle and whether they feel homeless or housed in the vehicle,  the fact is that anyone living in a vehicle on public streets ( as opposed to in a public campground or state park or other area where camping is permitted) is in essence creating the same problem for neighborhoods and the city.  They are appropriating public spaces for private use, and putting a residence in a place where, according to city planning everywhere in developed nations, a residence was never intended to be.

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Bus on 9th near Dwight

 

To support the visual story, photos of all camps/sites and vehicles are included. Since vehicles can change location, license plate numbers are included to prevent duplication.

Some observers have objected to a research project such as this, arguing that it puts a spotlight on vulnerable people, by publicizing locations of camps and/or vehicle dwellers.  We understand the sensitivity of this issue, but we disagree that having less information, or less publicly available information, is preferable.  We believe that many of the problems related to homelessness, are related to lack of information, lack of research, inadequate study of multiple facets of this complex problem.  So we believe that as regards the quandary of homelessness,  it’s always better to have more rather than less information.

Some observers argue that homeless are made more vulnerable by having their campsites mapped or vehicle license plates shown.  However, we believe it is rather disingenuous to suggest that homeless camps/vehicle dwellers are not a problem for cities or neighborhoods if such information is not available.  The fact is that homeless camps and vehicle dwellers (some more than others) result in an absolutely enormous number of complaints to police and public works agencies, in cities all across the US, and the East Bay is no exception.  City leaders in the East Bay and San Francisco have shown themselves exceptionally tolerant to homeless persons, in spite of  multiple homeless camp situations involving ongoing problems with garbage, blight, nuisance,  impeded sidewalks or roadways, criminal behavior (eg assaults, theft), stolen property, fires, vermin, hazardous materials, public safety hazards, and more.

As well, the unfortunate facts are that very few municipalities have adequate designated places for the homeless to stay, which are accepted both by the homeless and the community, so the result is a constant tension between housed residents and the homeless as homeless people set up camps or seek parking spots in cities.

Finally, a point we’ll make throughout our work on this issue is that we believe the problem of homelessness is not only a problem for the homeless themselves, but is also a problem for neighborhoods and cities.  Therefore it’s an important part of the work to keep highlighting the ways that homelessness effects communities and cities, particularly the more negative effects.

Without doing extensive work and/or interviews which our team did not have time for, it is very difficult to verify that any of the mapped are definitely being used as habitations. Hence, just because a vehicle is included in our map, should not be taken to imply it’s being used as a habitation/dwelling.

However, we have come up with 18 indicators which suggest the use of vehicles as residences. The more indicators are present, the more likely the vehicle is a residence. Likelihood of mapped vehicles being used as homes ranges from merely possible in a few cases to virtually certain in many.

Eighteen Indicators that a Vehicle may be being used to live in

  • Vehicle remains at the same location and does not appear to be driven much. Or, alternately, the vehicle is noted at locations further apart than seem consistent with ownership by a housed resident.
  • Vehicle is a van or RV with windows opaqued or blocked with curtains or other coverings –particularly when the window coverings are crudely made, such as with tinfoil or towels.
  • Vehicle appears, through windows where visible, to be full of belongings and/or to contain items used for living such as mattress.
  • Debris or items like shopping carts appear/accumulate around the vehicle.
  • A person or people loiter around the vehicle, perhaps with the vehicle door open.
  • Vehicle is parked in one of the areas/corridors where living in vehicles or existence of homeless camps is more frequent.
  • Vehicle has belongings on top or attached to it.
  • Vehicle is derelict,  dirty, or broken down in appearance.
  • Vehicle is near/accompanied by other vehicles that also appear to be used to live in.
  • In an area where some streets require parking permits, vehicle lacks residential parking permit.
  • A person or people have been seen near/in the vehicle at night, or lights are visible inside the vehicle at night.
  • Vehicle has been seen at another area where homeless camps/living in vehicles is frequent.
  • Person/s associated with the vehicle look rather more like “homeless” people than area residents (subjective).
  • Vehicle has out of state license plates and/or no license plates and/or expired registration.
  • Vehicle is parked in commercial/industrial area during hours when businesses in those areas are closed.
  • Vehicle has been repurposed in a way that is consistent with use as a habitation — eg, a U Haul truck with added windows, solar panels.  A school bus with an “addition” or skylights.
  • Person/s are working on the vehicle while it is parked in a commercial/industrial area.
  • When parked in a residential neighborhood, vehicle is not parked in front of residences, or is parked next to fence or park, school, large apartment building, etc.

By contrast, these are some indications that the vehicle (van or RV) is not being used as a residence:

  • The van or RV is parked in a residential area parked in front of a residence.
  • The van or RV is in good condition or new, or a comparatively more expensive type.
  • The van or RV has residential parking permit.
  • The van or RV does not have all windows covered.
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Bus with trash around it, Acton near Parker

 

This is the Google Map showing our results thus far in the research:  Map of Homelessness in Berkeley

Some of the conclusions and observations that can be drawn from the study:

(1) There are certain areas with heavy concentrations of homeless camps and/or people living in vehicles.  For the purposes of the study, I will divide the city into sectors.  When the study is finished, I will calculate the percentage of homeless camps/cars in each sector of the city.

(2) There are a large number of people living in vehicles at the Berkeley Marina in particular.  We counted 43 vehicles that appear to be being used as dwellings parked in and nearby the Berkeley Marina, including in areas that clearly indicate that overnight parking is not allowed. In fact there was virtually no part of the Berkeley Marina without vehicle dwellers.  We found them in every parking lot — over 6 parking lots– as well as in a huge encampment of 13 large RVs all lined up directly across from the Double Tree Hotel and one of the Marina access areas.  We found 6 to 8 vehicles that appear to be used as residences parked in the small parking lot (space for 15 vehicles total ) on Frontage Rd near the Ashby St exit.  This in spite of the fact that signage there clearly indicates that the area is a tow-away zone from 9pm to 6am.  So it would seem that in this small beach and shoreline area created for recreation, just adjacent to this small parking lot on Frontage Rd near Ashby, half the available parking spaces are being used by homeless people living in their cars.

Frontage road parking restrictions photoshopped

Several people living in cars at beach at Frontage Rd in spite of this signage: Berkeley Police officer has been unable to explain why this continues in spite of numerous requests to police to enforce parking restrictions.

 

(3) There are apparently a number of homeless people coming here from out of state.   As of November 23 2017, of a total of about 120 “homeless” vehicles recorded so far, these had out of state license plates:
— Colorado Lic plate 020 RZQ Marina Blvd near DoubleTree hotel

–Wyoming lic plate 6 9784 parking lot at Berkeley Marina

— Missouri lic plate SK4 J7L  Harrison St between San Pablo and 10th

— Arizona lic plate 1440 AP 5th St at Camelia

— Arizona lic plate 378S5 Camelia at 4th

— Michigan lic plate BGV 4647 5th at Bancroft

–Iowa lic plate EFP 819 5th at Addison

–Utah Lic plate 43U 403 Grayson at 7th

— Oregon lic plate 556 HJZ 8th at Grayson

— Oregon lic plate 406 HCE 8th at Heinz

— Montana lic plate 479277B McGee at Stuart

— Washington Lic plate BFW8747 Telegraph at Ashby

–FLorida lic plate 4GR 047  on Curtis at Allston

— Montana lic plate BTD070 Curtis at Addison

Massachusetts lic plate 7616 D McGee at Channing

–Colorado lic plate 802 2GQ Regent near Dwight

–New Mexico lic plate 09165C Haste at Bowditch

— Texas lic plate FHL 4985 California at Ashby

–Texas Lic plate FNV 6598 Ellis at Adeline

— Alabama lic plate 4C 44601 Lowell at Grace

–Wisconsin lic plate H8670 62nd at Hollis

–Washington Lic plate B45223G 62nd at Doyle

–Nevada lic plate A821 Frontage rd near Ashby exit

–Massachusetts lic plate 3DY 129 on Marina Rd near Double Tree hotel

–Illinois lic plate 393 867 Marina Parking lot near Cesar Chavez Park

–Idaho lic plate 2C A783M Marina Parking lot near Cesar Chavez Park

–Florida Lic plate AGR 047 Bonar at Addison

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Harrison St RV CA license plate 3PWG284 2

2nd and Page RV and homeless camp
RV and homeless camp at 2nd and Page streets, Berkeley

After working to map homeless camps and vehicle dwelling in Berkeley, we’d like to do the same for the city of Oakland.  Actually we are doing these maps at the same time since we have team members who live in both cities working on the project.

For Oakland, there has already been some mapping of homeless camps that was done in early 2017, perhaps by the city.  This map (which is given in this San Francisco Chronicle Article) shows the results they found, as well as indicating three sites where Oakland intends to build sanctioned homeless encampments. More on Oakland’s approach in another article.  Sanctioned Homeless Encampments Oakland

Homeless on the Water

To be without a home means to be in search of the “unclaimed” spaces of the world — sometimes niches on private land where one can live unnoticed, or perhaps public spaces where one will be left alone.  There are plenty of open spaces in far-flung rural areas where one might live for a time without causing any bother to anyone else, hopefully also lightly upon the land, but it’s difficult for poor people to live far from services and businesses.  In urban areas, it’s harder to find open spaces.

But it’s a different story on the water.  When you’re in a boat on the water, you’re far from the usual claims upon space.  The waters of the world don’t belong to people, or to businesses or cities, in quite the way that space on land does.  So it’s no surprise that there are an increasing number of people who are homeless on the water.

In the Bay Area, one of the most popular places to live this way, for those who have the means to obtain a boat to live in, is Richardson Bay near Sausalito.  And this issue of the so-called “anchor-outs” who live this way, anchoring out of the marina, in random spots in the Bay, has become more concerning lately as the number of anchor-outs has increased.

Are people who have a boat to live in, really “homeless”?

Yorkshire Post NewspapersIn one way of looking at it, they are not, since their boat is their home and it may provide perfectly good shelter — in most cases these anchor-out boats containin not only a bed, but also a fully functional kitchen and bathroom.  However, the critical aspect of their dwelling style which serves to categorize them less as housed and more as homeless, is the essential illegality of this way of living. After all, those living in a car on a public street, or in a tent on the sidewalk or under a freeway overpass, or in a handmade hut in a hidden place in a Bay Area regional park, are also not without some form of shelter, and it may in many cases be perfectly good shelter, particularly if one views it by comparison to what passes for a home in an undeveloped nation.  But the issue common to all of these homes is that they are placed illegally, on land belonging to someone else or devoted to some other purpose and not intended for camping, much less open for pioneer homesteading.  So this puts all individuals housed in these hidden or unclaimed spaces, at risk of losing either their home or the space where they live in it.

There are many boat-dwellers who live legally on their boats, in the Bay Area and beyond — as in this blog by UK boatdwellers —  or this one  –paying mooring fees and other costs associated with this lifestyle, it does allow living at a lower cost than can generally be had on land.  (Berthing fees at the Berkeley Marina are currently $200 a month)  However, the lower cost also means higher demand, and it’s not so easy to find a spot to berth a boat.  As well, legal liveaboards must be seaworthy and kept in good condition, which means money for maintenance that many anchor-outs don’t have.

As reported in this story  in the San Francisco Chronicle, the city of Sausalito began to move to take action to deal with the problem of an increasing number of anchor-outs, which often caused problems to other boaters, and were sometimes abandoned boats or trash vessels.  Anchor out sausalito

The anchor-outs are a type of free spirit, one of the last ways for free spirits to live with some dignity and style:

Michel and about 100 of his briny brethren live free from the tethers of society — and, in many cases, free of charge — on as many as 177 boats anchored illegally in the waters that lap against the picturesque Marin County city.Jean Michel relaxes in his sailboat while it is anchored on Richardson Bay. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Jean Michel relaxes in his sailboat while it is anchored on Richardson Bay.

“When you are at sea, you can be whatever you want to be,” said Michel, 57, his long gray-blond hair blowing gently in the breeze coming in from the Golden Gate. “You are connected to the energy of the universe, unconstrained by society.”

One man has lived rent-free in Sausalito for 50 years, aboard his anchor-out, as described in this story.

More recently, Sausalito has made some major changes to try to address the growing problems associated with the anchor-outs, as as reported on CBS evening news here. “When it comes to the fight against illegal anchor-outs, Sausalito is striking out on its own….”  a city spokesman said, “We have seen an increase in quality of life issues, crime issues, debris vessels”  The news report states that some of the laws in effect had not been updated since the 1930’s, “allowing direlect boats to wash ashore or wreck havoc afloat.  But in the 3 weeks since the new laws went into effect, 6 boats have been removed.  It’s a good start, many mariners say, and hope that it will continue.”

The reporter mentioned that local “indigents” who live on the water say that by getting rid of them, they will just be moved from one part of the Bay to another, which isn’t actually solving anything.

Who are these anchor-out dwellers and how many of them are there? Well in this KQED article it’s reported that 14% of Marin County’s homeless live on the water.  Anchor out cartoon

It seems that as is often the case with places that otherwise homeless people find to go, that too large a community can work to their detriment — as associated problems increase, cities tend to move in and pass more restrictive laws or increase enforcement.  As the KQED writer summarizes:

People have lived here on the margins of land, water and legality for decades. Though they may have dropped anchor years ago, people “living on the hook” face an uncertain future.

The Sudden Neighbor: The Problem of Vehicle Dwellers on Residential Streets

One of the questions that arises in conjunction not only with homelessness, but with the increased cost of housing, has to do with areas that are considered “public” zones, and with the layout of cities.  Because as people become homeless, they have to “be” somewhere, and, particularly if the city/state or federal government has not provided them a designated place to go, generally this means they are sleeping and/or setting up a camp in some public area — eg on some public property.  Often those who have little but a sleeping bag, shopping cart and some found objects to create a shelter,  will set up their camps in lesser used parks, or on street medians or sidewalks in industrial areas or commerical areas of the city.  living in car 2

However, there are a good number of people who in a sense are not actually “homeless” –because they live in their vehicles.  Sometimes this is by choice, and sometimes the vehicles are quite elaborate, even very well appointed and well suited for living in.  Many live in vans and RV’s, and sometimes the only thing differentiating the well-off retired couple who lives in their RV and travels around the country, from the indigent who lives in his RV, is the location of the RV.  The retirees park their RV in a campground or WalMart parking lot,  or in rural areas on the side of the road during their travels — rarely on residential city streets.  The latter are not generally found in fee campgrounds, are less likely to spend much time far from cities where they obtain free services, and live primarily on public streets.  People live in RV

Given that living in a vehicle affords more privacy, more comfort and more security than living on the sidewalk or under a freeway overpass, it is not surprising that many people would prefer to live in a vehicle if they have one.  It is also likely that given the choice between living in a vehicle on a public street, and living in a homeless shelter or navigation center, many would choose the former.  In other words, even if a city had space in shelters for every single homeless person in city limits, some of those would refuse the shelter to stay in their vehicle on the streets.

Which brings us to the question about how this phenomenon of people living in vehicles on public streets is impacting cities and area residents.    For the most part, I’ve observed that those living in vehicles tend to do this in more “out of the way” areas, such as commercial-industrial areas, in or near city parks, or on streets where they are not directly in front of someone’s home.  However, as the number of people living in vehicles increases, and as such campers feel more justified and entitled to live on the public streets, more of them may do this in areas where this creates more problems for city residents — such as adjacent to schools or parks where mothers take small children, or even directly in front of other’s homes.  I have found some residential neighborhood streets in Berkeley and Oakland — some of them quite nice upscale neighborhoods — where there are 4 to 8 people living in vehicles on one block.  One such area was along Santa Fe Avenue just near the park which runs under the BART train tracks and the Ohlone Bike path.  I used to see about 6-8 RV’s parked on that street, several all in a line, one behind the other, next to the grassy area.  RV row

Living in an urban area with a significant population of homeless/indigent individuals, I like many others have have had homeless people sometimes living in their vehicle directly in front of my house.  Immediately in front of my house it’s occasional only,  but just a little ways down the street from me, the problem is worse and some residents have had 2-3 homeless people living in their vans just in front of their homes, every night, for over a year now.  (The same people and same cars for over a year…who are clearly regarding this section of public street as their permanent home).  These are blighted direlect-appearing vehicles whose windows are entirely covered with rags and/or tin foil, visually striking in this relatively well-off neighborhood which sports few old cars of any type.   I am afraid this problem could migrate more in my direction.    It’s hard for me to understand why someone would choose to do this, since they have so many other options — there is no dearth of places to park which are NOT right in front of someone’s home — and so the choice to do so seems particularly obnoxious, as well as unsettling.

When people living in their vehicles park right in front of my house,  I experience it as rather invasive.  As with many old houses in urban areas, my house is very close to the street.  In fact there is less distance from the front bedroom of my house to the street/curb, than from that same bedroom to my own bathroom.  The streets were never intended as public campgrounds, and city planning and zoning laws exist such that when people buy or rent a home, they have a right to depend on such regulations to protect their space from encroachment or invasion, allowing them to expect that what they’ve purchased or rented will not be subject to the sort of significant alteration that would occur if someone else could simply set up a permanent camping spot 20 feet from their bedroom window.  My neighbor would not be allowed to build a tiny house in his front yard, hard on the property line, and yet the same result occurs when someone simply drives up and parks their RV dwelling in front of my home and stays there for a night or more.  I suddenly have a neighbor, much much closer than the city laws or zoning would permit one to reside; and yet, because this neighbor is deemed “homeless” and living in a vehicle, they seem to be exempted from all the regulations which would prohibit such encroachment in any other way.

In fact I think it’s often misleading to call people “homeless” if they are living in a vehicle, particularly if it’s an RV or van well set up for the purpose and/or they’ve been doing it for some time.  The vehicle is their home, their residence, and by the mere dint of the fact that it’s a residence on wheels —and whether it’s a compact car or an enormous, expensive posh RV — apparently they now get far more rights about where they can locate their residence, than anyone else without wheels would be able to obtain.

In addition to the issue of sheer invasiveness of setting up your residence 20 ft from someone else’s bedroom, there is the massive size of RV’s that is an issue in and of itself. RV in front of house Because an RV parked in front of a house so significantly changes the view, as well as the “feng shui” of that place, many cities have laws which prohibit RV’s from being parked anywhere on public streets.  An RV parked in front of a house, particularly a low house built on a slab foundation, in essence suddenly places a huge 20-30 ft long and 10 ft high wall in front of that house.  It makes it impossible to look out the window and see anything but this RV/wall, and so its enormous presence is overbearing as well as ugly.   Berkeley doesn’t appear to have such a law prohibiting RV parking on streets, but many cities do.  For instance, in Redwood City as well as in San Rafael it is prohibited to park an RV on any public street for more than 1 hour.  The city of Santa Barbara  prohibits such parking. The city of Whittier recently moved to prohibit RV parking on its streets. The city of Carlsbad  as well as the city of San Marcos prohibit RVs parking on city streets from 2am to 5am.  The city of Santa Monica prohibition is for large vehicles, which covers both RVs as well as big rigs or other large trucks or rigs that would have the same overwhelming and negative effect if parked in front of someone’s home.  graffitti RV

Oakland also has a law prohibiting RV parking on public streets — but oddly the prohibition seems entirely directed at homeowners, as opposed to anyone else.   This page which summarizes Oakland’s blight ordinance states, significantly, that “Recreational vehicles, boats and trailers can only be parked on your property in a fully enclosed garage. ”  This blight law is particularly contradictory, since, as I’ll indicate below, the city of Oakland now allows anyone to live in a vehicle (any vehicle, including an RV) anywhere on any public street.  So on one hand the city is saying to homeless people and indigents (or really anyone of any income level who so chooses) that they can live in a vehicle on the public streets, while on the other hand they’re telling homeowners that they can’t park their own RV on the public street in front of their own home.  These two statements either contradict each other completely or indicate that non-homeowners have more “rights” to use of the public streets than homeowners do.  Neither of these conclusions is acceptable.

However in spite of the stated blight law, it appears that Oakland may not be enforcing it.  This  neighborhood discussion reveals that the city refused to take action about a “huge RV” parked in the same spot partially on a sidewalk, in spite of numerous complaints, and in spite of the fact that the RV had expired registration (itself an issue that can easily result in the vehcile being towed away) , was parked over 72 hrs in one spot, was partially parked on the sidewalk, and was parked in a place that violated the city’s own stated blight laws.

RV parked on street Oakland
Huge RV parked on residential street in Oakland

living in car

What are the laws about living in vehicles on public streets?

Intitially, many cities prohibited people living in vehicles on public streets.  However, such laws were often problematically vague, and could have an unintended result of criminalizing people who simply “lived out of ” their vehicles, or who were traveling and needing a break, and slept in their vehicles for a short time.  It was as a result of such vagueness in a Los Angeles law, that  the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2014 that city prohibitions on living in vehicles may be unconstitutional.  The law was viewed as unconstitutionally vague .  The problem was particularly acute in Venice CA as this news article shows.

Unfortunately, by ruling against such laws, the court has deprived cities of the only truly effective tool they had to use to prevent what is really completely unacceptable– people driving right up and living in their vehicle in front of your house or mine, really for as long as they like.

Some people have said, “Well if it bothers you to have someone in an RV in front of your house, why dont’ you ask them to move?”  That’s a nice sentiment but rather naive.  The last couple times I spoke nicely to someone asking them not to camp on the street in front of my house, I received threats and also garbage dumped in front of my house for about a month afterwards.  Other possibilities for those angered by such polite requests would be that we find our cars vandalized, plants ripped out of our yards, and more.  If the law — as it should —  actually prohibited people camping in vehicles at least in certain areas (such as in residential areas), individuals doing that would not be so bold as to threaten others for complaining about it.  However since there is now no law on our side, there’s little to prevent people from first being obnoxious and then hostile and/or aggressive towards anyone who entreats them to find a more suitable camping spot.

Many cities, including most of those in the Bay Area, have now backed down from their laws prohibiting living in vehicles, and are thus allowing anyone so motivated (not only the “homeless” but anyone who chooses to live in a vehicle) to exploit this rollback of the law and turn “parking” into camping, and streets into campgrounds.  I’ve spoken to police officers in both Berkeley and Oakland, and have been told directly that the police cannot and will not enforce “no camping in vehicle” laws, so that the only recourse anyone has, if someone is living in a vehicle in front of their house, is to use parking laws to deal with the situation.  Using parking laws alone to try to deal with the nuisance, blight, and invasiveness of people living in their vehicles in residential areas, or right in front of your house, is extremely ineffective, particularly in Oakland.

In Berkeley,  where there are more resources to attend to the problem, police will mark the vehicles and check them to ensure that as the law requires, the vehicle is moved very 72 hrs. One reason for this law (which is common throughout the state ) is that if the public streets became filled with nonoperative vehicles, the amount of parking available for those who drove regularly and needed a space to park might be significantly reduced.  Another reason is to reduce blight: if there were no way to remove nonoperative broken down junk from the street, the streets could much more easily become seriously blighted.

However, though most all cities have this ordinance prohibiting parking in one spot for more than 72 hrs,  (and in Berkeley it is enforced, when a complaint is received) I recently discovered that in Oakland, the city is all but unable to enforce this law. RV group

See these scanned copies of emails from Oakland’s Abandoned Auto Detail, which processes complaints about cars parked over 72 hrs.  In May 2016, their automated email response to such complaints, stated that they would process the complaint within 10 business days.

First Abandoned Auto email May 2016

In February, 2017, the time period the same department required to process complaints increased to 15 days:

Second Abandoned Auto email Feb 2017

While by April 2017, the same department now stated it would require up to 20 days to process complaints for this 3 day parking limit:

Third Abandoned Auto email April 2017

I’ve rarely had cause to file a complaint/report with the city over a vehicle parked over 72 hrs in the street in Oakland, but have done so a few times.  Recently, I called in to report about a vehicle that appeared to have been abandoned on the street near my house, a street which is partially in Berkeley and partially in Oakland.

Parking on the street near my house is a 2 hr zone, such that those without residential parking permits aren’t allowed to park more than 2 hrs.  This vehicle had no permit and had been parked in this same spot in the Oakland part of the street near my house for quite a while, and appeared direlect — perhaps a stolen vehicle I thought (one important reason to report vehicles parked for a long time in one spot, is that if they are stolen, the owner will be more quickly reunited with the vehicle if it’s reported).   I called to file a report about it being parked over 72 hrs.  It took over 20 days for the city even to mark the vehicle.  The car remained in that spot for over 25 days after the date I reported it (before which it had already been there a good while) and in that time only received one ticket for being parked over 2 hrs in the 2 hr zone.  Eventually I believe the vehicle owner moved the car, because I saw it elsewhere.

Another time, I saw a car that had been parked several weeks in an area in Oakland where illegal dumping is common.  Someone had actually dumped a huge pile of trash right up against that car.  I called the city to report the car parked over 72 hrs, and a month later (over 30 days later), the city had taken no action at all, they had not even marked the car.  So I phoned in to ask the city about their enforcement for this law, and to point out that it’s hardly effective if you have a law prohibiting parking over 3 days but can’t even enforce it within a timeframe of 30 days.   I was incredulous at what the staffperson at the City of Oakland told me.  He said that this problem of abandoned autos on the streets of Oakland is a HUGE problem for Oakland, and that they just dont’ have the staff to deal with it.  He also stated that because some neighbors use this law to harass each other, (“and the police know it” he said), he told me that the city now refuses to tow vehicles parked over 72 hrs in one spot, if the owner of the vehicle lives in that general area.

What greatly concerned me is that this in essence means that the city has no effective means to deal with any random person who happened to decide that they wanted to live in their vehicle in front of your house.  The laws prohibiting living in vehicles in public streets have been suspended, in light of the Ninth Circuit Court ruling, and cities apparently haven’t bothered to or cared to draft new replacement laws which would be acceptable to the court.  Absent any other parking restrictions, that has left only the 72 hr parking law as a very weak means of dealing with people living in vehicles on the streets, and now in Oakland that law is very weakly enforced overall, and appears to be  not enforced at all if the vehicle owner has a local address.

Particularly for those residents who live in neighborhoods that attract the vehicle dwellers, this lack of enforcement could amount to serious problems at some point.
So as I see it, there is a need not only to provide more homeless shelters and housing, and to create designated areas for car camping — but also for neighborhood residents to “take back the streets” and demand that cities do more to protect neighborhoods from nuisance, blight, crime and the inappropriate encroachment of other’s residential dwellings upon their own.
Take back the streets 3

Particularly given the rising cost of housing, it’s important to realize that not everyone who lives in a vehicle is “homeless” and/or indigent.  Some people live in vehicles by choice — for instance, I recently met a man who formerly lived in a less expensive Bay Area “bedroom community” , but decided that he’d rather live in Berkeley, which he could not afford.  Rather than remain in housing in a place where he could afford housing, he decided to live in an RV in a place where he could not afford to live.  He bought an RV, and is now living in the RV on public streets in Berkeley.  He told me that he primarily parks in industrial areas but sometimes in residential ones, and sometimes right in front of someone else’s house.  He seemed offended when he encountered people — like the woman in front of whose house he parked who called police to mark his RV for 72 hr parking — who were upset about this — declaring “I have a right to park in the public streets!”  However, he’s being disingenous about what he is doing in the public streets, because he most definitely is not just PARKING there.  He’s LIVING there.  There’s a big difference, but unfortunately the law is at a point where it’s unable to make distinctions in these two things.  And if he has a right to park and live in public streets, what about the right of a house dweller not to have her space suddenly invaded, her view blocked by a humongous RV? Her right not to have a person suddenly “move in” and reside in a space that was never intended for residence, and should not be permitted to become anyone’s residence?

Given the very large proportion of homeless who have substance abuse, or serious mental illness (a Berkeley study showed that 40% of all homeless have one or both of these problems), and given the fact that some homeless and indigent turn to crime in  order to support themselves (particularly if they see few others options), the “homeless” person living in a van or RV on public streets, or even in front of your home, could be a drug addict, mentally ill person engaging in bizarre behavior, or even a criminal.   In San Francisco in February 2018, police ended up arresting someone living in an RV on city streets, in connection with a shooting incident which left one person dead and one gravely injured.  The person being investigated as the perpetrator of this crime is a homeless person living in SF.

The San Francisco Police Department arrested 31-year-old Joel Armstrong and charged him with murder, attempted murder, carjacking, possessing a firearm as a felon and receiving or possessing stolen property. Armstrong was identified by police as a transient.

In July 2017, Palo Alto took a common sense step and began using the state’s 72 hr parking ordinance (which, statewide, restricts anyone from parking more than 72 hrs in one spot) to remove vehicle dwellers living in RVs from a street where their presence had obtained a large number of complaints.

The city of Los Angeles was the place where a major Federal Circuit Court decision came down, which made it more difficult for cities to deal with the problem of vehicle dwellers in the city.  Los Angeles had had a law which prohibited people living in vehicles in city limits.  An attorney representing the homeless living in vehicles sued the city over this law, and a Federal Circuit Court judged in their favor, striking down the Los Angeles Law.  However, whereas Berkeley and Oakland and perhaps other cities have used this court decision to justify their now taking an almost completely passive approach to this problem, and refusing to do anything to rein in the problem, Los Angeles did not respond to the court decision so stupidly.  Clearly, a court decision that prohibits a complete ban on vehicle dwelling is not the same as a prohibition on any restrictions on vehicle dwelling in the city.  So Los Angeles then passed a law which prohibits living in vehicles in residential neighborhoods, but allows this in commercial and industrial areas.  This seems a very reasonable and common sensical first step and I can’t understand why Berkeley and Oakland would not move to take the same step.  These articles describe LA’s approach:

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/livable-city/la-oe-gapay-dont-roust-homeless-in-vehicles-help-them-20170216-story.html
http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2017/01/los-angeles-is-attempting-to-fix-its-homeless-car-parking-problem/
http://www.scpr.org/news/2017/02/06/68713/new-restrictions-limit-where-homeless-in-cars-can/

It will continually be my goal to look not just at the “rights” of those who we deem less fortunate, but also the rights of traditionally housed city residents, whose neighborhoods are effected in many negative ways by homelessness as well as people disrespecting the space around other’s homes, who insist that they have a right to house themselves on the public street directly in front of someone else’s home.  The Quandary of Homelessness cannot be accurately and adequately perceived and explored without looking at these issues from both sides and considering the needs and rights of all those involved.

What do I recommend as a way to solve this problem?
As expressed elsewhere, I believe that the solution to these issues must involve both providing adequate shelter space and housing to those in need, as well as then prohibiting people from setting up camps in any random place they might choose.  To me the key issue in all of this, is that shelters, housing and space for a variety of types of camping, must be in designated areas only.  Once cities provide designated areas for individuals to rest, sleep and temporarily reside, and there is adequate means for all individuals either to partake of these services in a given city, or be transferred to another city where there is housing available. then as I see it, and as I believe courts will see it, cities would be under no obligation to allow camping and/or living in vehicles in any other area.
Cities could each set up a “rest area” much like those found on major highways, which has toilets and sinks, perhaps also showers, and allows people to sleep in their vehicles in the parking area for a temporary period of time.  Cities could track all vehicles using such areas for camping, and ensure that no one overstayed the time limit permitted — whether a day or two, or a week or two.  After 2 weeks, people would either have to delcare themselves travelers and move on out of the city,  or declare themselves homeless and cooperate with the city in finding legitimate housing for themselves.  Cities which had the space and resources might opt to create more permanent “trailer parks” where camping in vehicles for longer periods of time would be allowed — or they might direct those who wish to live in this fashion, to cities which had such space available.  Trailer parks are not, however, a very efficient use of land space.  Given a limited amount of land, a much larger number of people could be housed in container homes, “micro-apartments”, SROs of the old boarding house variety, or other types of multi-story, multiunit buildings.
Once adequate shelter space and rest-from-driving space had been created, cities should again be able to prohibit all living in vehicles on public streets. It would be easiest to end the practice of living in RV’s and oversize vehicles since these are easily regulated in a distinct way from standard passenger vehicles based on their large size.
The prohibition on living in vehicles should be complaint based rather than aggressive and proactive, so that cities would not be enforcing the no-camping in vehicles policy except when they had complaints.  This way, people living in cars could still occupy the margins of society and exist between the cracks, but they would not be enabled by lack of adequate legal muscle, to bring blight and nuisance to neighborhoods, and to invade other’s space in residential neighborhoods.  Having such living arrangements be technically illegal  could help motivate such vehicle dwellers to not bother others or camp in areas where they weren’t wanted.

save space with orange conesIf the city can’t protect residents from people living in vehicles in front of their houses, residents who are dealing with street camping issues in their immediate areas, may need to take this matter into their own hands — for instance I’ve seen some people block off the space in the street front of their house with orange cones or folding signs.  I hear that it’s common to do this with chairs in some cities.  This is generally done to save parking spaces, not to block homeless people from living there, but new times and new problems may require that such “parking solutions”  be used for these new problems.  chairs saving parking spot

Some may opt to buy a 2nd vehicle and park it in front of their home themselves.  Perhaps some new “parklets” such as we see in front of cafes in commercial areas will come into being. ,

As more people feel entitled to use public streets as campgrounds, either cities will have to adequately deal with this issue such that they can protect neighborhoods from being turned into slums, or perhaps we will see a rise in the blossoming of “undocumented” parklets and outdoor hangout spaces, appropriated from the same area of the public streets that the cities are apparently refusing to regulate.  After all, if the city is saying someone can just drive up and reside in this space, why shouldn’t I be able to set up a little patio there, with attractive outdoor seating, or a nice little cafe area?  How about a reading room or outdoor living room replete with a nice little “lending library”?  And if the city wants everything sitting in a public street to be street legal and on wheels — well these little patios, living rooms and reading rooms can easily be built on standard utility trailers with valid licensing, registration and insurance.

After all, it’s far more attractive and fun to have a little outdoor seating area on the street in front of your house which fits in with the neighborhood, the yards and local flora and architecture, than to have an unfriendly family in a dingey RV living there and dumping buckets of urine on the street beside it.

parklet
what it looks like when we take back our streets

living room parklet

 

Is this “Freedom”?

In this blog article I want to share some photos of the people who I’ve seen living on streets, sidewalks, in the bushes and under the freeways in California.  It’s my hope that these photos demonstrate why this sort of “freedom” to live in crevices and neglected spots in urban areas, is not freedom.  People deserve much better than to be left to live like this.

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Telegraph Avenue and 51st Street, Oakland February 2017.  This man was sitting in the bushes in a large pile of sodden trash, in the rain, picking lice off his head as pedestrians walked by on the sidewalk a few feet away.

 

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Man in his underwear sitting on a mattress, living on the sidewalk directly across the street from single family homes in a residential area.  Tremont Street near Ashby BART station, Berkeley.

 

This man continued to live on the sidewalk in this fashion, in this residential area for several months, in spite of numerous interventions by mental health agencies, police and homeless advocates.  He was asked to move many times, and every time came right back.  Eventually, he moved closer to the intersection of Shattuck and Woolsey, where the East Bay Community law Center and the Homeless Action group are located.  He then abandoned all his belongings in a quite spectacular fashion on the sidewalk, resulting in a massive pile of debris and trash about 30 feet long, again located directly across the street from single family homes in a residential area.

tremont-street-homeless-man-debris-field

tremont-street-homeless-man-debris

Debris field.

Man lying on sidewalk in blanket – cocoon, February 2018, Durant Avenue near UC Berkeley campus: OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Durant 5 man on sidewalk Feb 11 2018

Man lying on bed with blankets at OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAstreet corner, Broadway and 41st Street, Oakland:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the sidewalk near Home Depot in Emeryville:

Home Depot Camp 7
I want to bring up some terminology — most of you when seeing these sights, will doubtless refer to these people as “homeless”, since that is the term we are most always using, to refer to people we see living on the streets or sleeping on the sidewalk.  I want to suggest, though, (as I have suggested in other articles here) that this term is not always that useful, and at times, may be quite misleading.

One of the arguments made by many homeless advocates and many of the homeless themselves, is that most of the homeless are “ordinary people” who fell upon difficult circumstances, such as losing a job or an apartment, or a health crisis, and then ended up homeless as a result of circumstances or events which could pretty much happen to any of us.  This argument is useful in generating compassion for these people living or sleeping on the sidewalks, as people are more likely to feel motivated to reach out to help someone if they believe “there but for the grace of God go I.”

The problem with this argument that most of the homeless are “ordinary people”, just like you or I except for having experienced some very difficult circumstance, is that it is not likely true.  For instance, how many of us, if we happened to lose a job, or our apartment, would end up living in a pile of sodden trash behind the bushes? Or how many of us, if we lost our apartment due to a health crisis, would end up sitting naked and talking out loud to ourselves on the sidewalk, for several months, rejecting all services offered? Or again, how many of us, losing a job, and our savings, would end up sleeping on a busy corner in Oakland, cans of Olde English Malt Liquor scattered on the ground around us?

The point is, that many of those we rather casually call “the homeless”, are probably not best described that way.  Homelessness may be a symptom of their condition, but the primary cause of their difficulty is not that they lost a job, and then became homeless, or lost an apartment, and then had nowhere to go, but that they have a serious mental illness, and without treatment, even giving them housing may not be a good solution, as they could very easily end up quickly evicted again.  Or they have a serious substance abuse problem, and again, giving them housing may not be of much help, if the problem continues and they end up quickly evicted once more.

I dont’ know what is the best term to use for these people — actually I think there may not be one. Though we can refer to them as people who somehow ended up on the sidewalk or in the bushes, there is more than simply the lack of housing which is a problem here.

Something hopeful — State Senator Scott Weiner has recently introduced legislation in California, which would help establish conservatorships for the seriously mentally ill who are not able to care for themselves or make the decisions which would be in their best interest.  It would help so much to allow the city or state to intervene when people are engaging in self-destructive behaviors and causing distress and concern to all of us when we see them out on the street in some of the ways I’ve shown here.

Some of the homeless found in quite disturbing settings and situations which show they cannot take care of themselves, are helped by local agencies oriented specifically to this purpose, such as the Mission for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization in Oakland. They helped Lamont, depicted here:

Lamont homeless man Oakland

They helped him by taking him to a hospital, which restored his health. They also got him into housing.

Given the lack of homeless shelters in the Bay Area, there has been a suggestion that local churches might construct homeless shelters on their property.

So far one shelter has been built, located at West Side Missionary Baptist church. The goal is to have several hundred more, spread throughout the county, by the end of the year.

THis is being called a “Faith Based Solution to Homelessness”

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There is some thought that faith-based approaches to homelessness may be more successful than standard government approaches, as they take a more holistic approach. A study about such approaches can be found here. Another study is here. A very substantial 146 page study is here.

Homeless — or Alternatively/Illegally Housed?

Over the years as I’ve observed public discourse about homelessness, it has become clear that the term “homeless” is too often used as a catch-call to refer to a number of different kinds of people, categories of people who are sometimes very distinct from one another, and for whom the “solutions”, if any, to their “homelessness”, would look different.

For instance, people who become homeless when they lose their apartment after losing a job, and who are otherwise well-functioning individuals, are more likely to  respond eagerly and cooperatively to services provided to them, than are individuals with serious substance issues or serious, untreated mental illness, who experience severe obstacles in being able to function in our society, or sometimes even care for themselves in a very basic way.

Yet,  I’m coming to believe that even the term “homeless”  may not be the most accurate description of  all the people who live on sidewalks, urban parks, or under highway overpasses, whom we tend to assume lack a “home.”  The term “homeless” is convenient and politically valuable for those who seek to “help the homeless”  — the homeless service providers, homeless advocates, and city residents moved to help these downtrodden people with various forms of donations, aid and support.  The term “homeless” makes us feel empathy — because we understand what our own homes mean to us, and we then can understand better the suffering of those who lack homes.

However, not all those who we would term “homeless” are actually without homes, particularly if we use their definition of home rather than our own.  For instance we find that there are some “homeless” individuals who refuse to live indoors, even though they are offered shelter or permanent housing, and prefer to live in a tent on a certain city block in an industrial area — where they talk about the “community” they have there.  I think it becomes accurate to say that in a sense, such people indeed do have homes, even if those homes — tents set on wooden pallets on a city sidewalk — do not much resemble what we ourselves think of as homes, and even if those homes are more vulnerable than ours to being lost through a city eviction and clearout of the camp.

Consider: there are many Third World countries where people’s standard homes are just as simple and rudimentary as the tents and cobbled-together structures that many “homeless” people erect in cities across the USA.

Tent camp in USA

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A “city” of small homes in Portland

Homeless “house” in Oahu:

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A “homeless” person’s home on Oahu

Structures at camp in Portland

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Lumber has been hauled in to illegally construct homes on public land in Portland

Village in Oakland

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A “homeless” person illegally constructing his home on public land

Whereas some homeless people simply sleep on a park bench or in a doorway off the sidewalk, others are setting up tents –some of them quite spacious — in elaborate tent communities, and still others are hauling in lumber and constructing actual houses for themselves — all on public land.   This story about the “Village” homeless camp set up in city park in Oakland includes   a video showing a two-story residence that one of the residents of the Village was building for himself.  There were similar elaborate homes built by the “homeless” at the Albany Bulb park, such as this two-story wonder:

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Elaborate home at Albany Bulb “homeless” camp

Given that many of these homes are actually not that much different from standard houses in Third World countries, I think to use the term “homeless” for those who live in them, is misleading.

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A standard home in a Third World nation
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Typical Third World country home

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tipi-house
Simple home of times past in the USA

The only difference between some of these more elaborate homes of the “homeless” in the US, compared to some of the homes we see in Third World nations, or even in impoverished parts of the US, is that the homes of the “homeless” are located on public land, instead of private land, and are not legal residences.  Whereas the poor of many Third World countries, or of this nation, live in slapped-together, or run-down homes on private land, those we refer to as  “homeless” have simply appropriated public land for their own use, and built their homes on someone else’s land, generally without permission to do so.

So, as the images here illustrate, I think that instead of referring to many people as “homeless”, it would be clearer to refer to them as “alternatively/illegally housed” people whose homes are illegally built on public land, land that they don’t own and have no permission to build on, land which they nevertheless are appropriating for their own use.

The distinction is worth making for several reasons.  One is because it points to a way in which “homeless” people are being resourceful and “making do” by constructing their own homes, of materials that they can scavenge or which are donated, in areas which they assess that they might have a likelihood of that home remaining for a while.  Secondly, calling these people “alternatively/illegally housed” points to a countercultural way of living, a creation of new communities with different values than can be found elsewhere in society, a life “off the grid” and one which many will resent because they view it as involving theft of public resources.  However, not all use of public lands for residential purposes is strictly illegal, and not all of it is equally offensive to the general public.  For instance the community at Slab City California,

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Slab City campers

near Niland by the Salton Sea, is a group of people who live on public land, a former military base.  Because that area is so remote from any city, and is even a good distance away from the closest town, Niland, which itself is in a state of deterioration and collapse, this appropriation of public land has not caused any serious problems for government or neighboring communities. As well, however, the people who live at Slab City do not have well-off neighbors to beg from or rely on donations from, and they are far from any services, so for the most part they have to have at least a vehicle.

Third,  this distinction between the “homeless” and the “alternatively/illegally housed” people is worth making because it shines more of a light on the degree to which focused intent, rather than simply desperation, may be involved in the choice that some make to live in these alternative houses in alternative/illegal “cities.”  Particularly when we have people saying that they do not want shelter, they do not want the housing that a city may provide for them, but prefer to live in tents on sidewalks or in the woods, we can more clearly see an anti-social or countercultural element at work, as well as a large scale usurpation of public property for private use.

Finally, to call a group of people “illegally housed” instead of simply “homeless” helps shine a light on a problem that many “homeless advocates” in particular wish to downplay: the fact that building one’s home illegally on public property, and in effect taking public property for private use, is not a trivial thing, which finger-wagging or pleas for empathy for the homeless can overcome with sufficient ardor.  Nor is it merely a technicality that the ad-hoc housing which is being built by the homeless, is housing that is illegal for human residence, legally uninhabitable,  in the cities where it is found, due to noncompliance with building, zoning and planning codes, and lack of electricity and indoor plumbing or , in many cases, any nearby sanitary facilities — leading many homeless camps to be found to contain bottles of urine or buckets of human feces.

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The one-room cabin: Legal on a homestead in Alaska but not in a city park in Oakland

I think this is particularly important to say, given the level of entitlement among some individuals and organizations at this time, where we see the claim of the impoverished or desperate reaching further across public resources than perhaps ever before, sometimes (as in the case of the First they Came for the Homeless camp in Berkeley) even with law firms backing it up and threatening to sue the city if a the city attempts to remove the illegal housing that has been erected.

Particularly because homelessness in many cities has increasingly involved large or coordinated encampments, which are often very difficult and costly to eradicate and simply re-appear days or even hours after they are entirely cleared out by the city, I think it’s important that we not lose sight of the way that the goalposts are being moved in this context.  The “homeless” in the modern era are demanding more than they would have, a hundred years ago.  Many of the “homeless” aren’t content with being given shelter — they are demanding free permanent housing.  And if this housing isn’t being provided to them, they are demanding the right to build tiny house communities on public land without permission, and thus enacting their own beliefs about their “right” to housing — their view that if they have enough need, they should be given a public park, or two, or more in which to permanently reside.

As seen in the video about the Village homeless camp in Oakland, the advocates of these illegally housed individuals yell “shame, shame” when their ad-hoc house structures are removed.  Such actions and attitudes reveal an increasing level of entitlement about housing — the view that if one can’t afford or hasn’t the means to obtain  housing in a city, one should be able to lay claim to housing in some perhaps less coveted part of the city, much in the way the homesteaders or gold miners in pioneer times simply laid a claim to land.  The problem is that we no longer live in the Wild West where there is abundant space to be had by the first arrival.

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Homes of the Wild West — on a street corner near you?

Yet at the same time as we are collectively appalled at many of the “Wild West” towns cropping up on our city streets, it’s impossible for most of us to ignore or be unmoved by the desperation and need of the many who struggle to find a way to live when they cannot afford standard housing, or have substance abuse or mental health issues which greatly reduce their ability to retain jobs or housing.

In view of the great need that exists, combined with the high cost of “legal” housing, we may collectively decide to amend our laws such that some forms of housing we now term “illegal” may be re-visited. We may feel that some forms of “illegal” housing which currently is considered legally uninhabitable in our city, be viewed as better than sleeping on the sidewalk, and provide such housing for some of the most indigent.  But until we have made such amendments, keep in mind that tenants are suing landlords because their homes lack heat, or fully functioning toilets, or hot water in the shower.  City governments might find themselves the landlords being  sued  for providing uninhabitable homes, or for the consequences of people residing in such, should they decide to permit residence in structures which are uninhabitable under current law.

To sum up: in the phenomenon of homelessness as it takes shape in our country today, we aren’t dealing simply with a problem of people who lack housing and are lying down and sleeping in public places.  We are dealing with an increasing number of people who are appropriating, in essence stealing, public space for their own private use.  Though the elaborate “semi-permanent” homeless camps offer better shelter, and more community, for those who live in them, the usurpation of public property which is involved in their construction, as well as the crimes and nuisance that accompany large homeless camp “cities”,  creates many more problems and dilemmas for both city and residents, than does simply sleeping on park benches in public places.

Update: there is an Op-Ed in Berkeleyside, the Berkeley area online news site, which addresses this same issue.  See it here:

http://www.berkeleyside.com/2018/02/02/opinion-homeless-stay-called-homesteaders/

The Gilman Underpass: Years of Crime and Nuisance at a Homeless Encampment

When we talk of solving the dilemma of homelessness, typically this is taken to mean that cities want to shelter or house people who lack shelter or housing.  But there are other reasons, also, to want to solve the dilemma of homelessness — and two of the most prominent of those, are (1) the financial cost to cities of providing services to the homeless on an emergency rather than a supportive basis when they live in an unstable situation and their untreated substance abuse or mental illnesses results in great expense for the city.  (2) The blight, crime, nuisance, public health safety issues associated with illegal encampments, particularly those which are “entrenched” encampments like the Gilman Underpass in Berkeley has been.

The homeless encampment which has been located under the Gilman Street highway underpass is a case in point regarding crime and nuisance.  Berkeleyside, a Berkeley publication, has published stories over the years detailing the problems associated with this homeless camp.  An article article from April 2014  quotes some of the residents of this camp as stating that the camp had been in existence for many years when part of it was cleared out at that time by CalTrans, the California Highway authority and owner of the property there, after receiving many complaints of crime and obstructed sidewalks.  A Berkeley police officer said, ““We get a lot of calls for people drinking, people fighting, and people laying on the sidewalk” under the overpass, said Officer Jeff Shannon, who is among the city and police representatives who began the effort to address the encampment last fall.”  gilman-fencegilman-trashIn order to address this problem, CalTrans erected a fence in the area, which forced homeless more onto the sidewalk.

In July 2014, as this Berkeleyside article  indicates, the city of Berkeley attempted to grant the homeless denizens of this area a “reprieve”, in spite of numerous serious problems with the camp and the fact that it posed a health hazard. ““The camp activity and accumulations continue to contribute to rodent harborage and create a public nuisance,” said then City Manager Christine Daniel.

Homeless people have camped out at the underpass for years, but the situation started to get worse in April when Caltrans fenced off a large portion of the area where many had been living. That forced people to squeeze onto a small strip of land and onto the sidewalk.

The situation was exacerbated when the city of Albany reached an agreement with a long-term homeless community that had been living on the Albany Bulb. Albany paid the group individual payments totaling $24,000 to leave permanently, and hired Berkeley Food & Housing Project to find them housing.

But many of the Albany homeless gravitated to Berkeley and the underpass. In the last few months, as the population has grown, so has the mess. The area is piled with broken bicycles, shopping carts, tents, sleeping bags and mattresses.

Inspections by the city’s Environmental Health Division, on May 22 and June 6, determined that the camp was a public nuisance. The city ordered the people living there to clean it up by June 21.

gilman-debris

On July 18th,  as reported in this article the City cleaned up the homeless camp, citing a problem with rodents and garbage.

The city manager sent a memo Friday to the Berkeley City Council about the clean-up. She said 1,000 pounds of “garbage, rotting food, hypodermic needles and other debris” were removed from the area during the operation. Read more here. ““It’s not a safe place to live. And the conditions that were developing were certainly not safe.… The goal today was to clean up all of the very serious conditions there.”

While the city was attempting to clean up this site, attorney Osha Neumann, who often represents homeless individuals, was fighting city attempts to clean up the site.

Following their eviction from the Underpass, many of these homeless residents set up tents adjacent to the nearby railroad tracks, as described in this article . This resulted in a great deal of trash and debris piled up along the railroad tracks corridor — yet Osha Neumann had argued this isn’t trash, but it’s the belongings of the homeless.  Look at the photos and make up your own mind about what you see. trashy-tent

tent-and-trash

trash-by-homeless-camp

trash-by-railroad-tracks

trash-and-shopping-cart

When the homeless , who often have substance abuse problems or serious mental illness, camp very close to Railroad tracks, this is a dangerous combination, as was exemplified by an October 2013 incident where a homeless man lost a leg after being hit by a train, as reported in this article .

In spite of the efforts of the City and CalTrans to clear out the homeless camp from the Gilman Underpass, the campers returned and remained there for several more years.  In June 2016 Caltrans again cleared out the area, as reported in this article .  Jim Hynes with the City Manager’s office stated:

… homeless outreach, city maintenance crews, mental health workers and environmental health staff were all on the scene to help out. He estimated that five containers of syringes, some 250 needles, had been removed, along with numerous bottles of human urine…. there were other indications, he said, of rampant heroin use, as well as dead rats and human feces, particularly on the south side of the street.

City residents, whose children use the soccer fields nearby, have complained for years about the camp:

“The Gilman underpass is a disgrace for the homeless and other residents, and leaves our kids who play soccer at Gilman scared and anxious,” said one woman who wrote in recently. “The city does nothing but move that population around every so often.”

Another said he has seen what he believes to be bicycle chop shops, garbage and a growing number of tents in the area.

When Cal Trans or the City removes the garbage it’s about 4 tons and they all just move right back in,” he said. “They need to go and I have contacted a Caltrans supervisor in this matter as I am sick of it.”

After the city clears up the area under the overpass, the homeless often move just a few yards down the road to the sidewalk nearby.  The Gilman camp continued to be the primary homeless camp in the city and the one associated with the most crime and nuisance, as described in this article . There are numerous crimes associated with the camp, as described in that article, by people who refuse all services the city offers:

The sight of people with tents, rugs and chairs amassed on the sidewalk is deeply disturbing to many Berkeley residents. A number of those living there are very dirty. Staph infections are common. So is drug use. In recent weeks, police have made arrests for an assault with a deadly weapon, brandishing a weapon, and sexual assault, said Scott.

“Gilman is a homeless encampment with tents, carts and garbage that looks like a 3rd world country,” one reader wrote to Berkeleyside. “It’s a nightmare that nobody wants to touch.”

Berkeley offers a myriad of services to the 800 to 1,200 or so people who live in the city but don’t have a permanent home. But those around the Gilman underpass are the most service-resistant.

“We hear from many folks that they are aware of the services,” said Scott. “They don’t want them.”

In July 2016, the city set up a new fence to attempt to deter camping at the Gilman underpass, as reported in this article . As if it had not already been difficult enough to deal with this intractable problem over many years, the City and Caltrans faced new problems in their cleanup efforts when the homeless, together with their legal respresentatives at the East Bay Community law Center, were accused of not using the proper procedure in removing debris at the site, as reported in this article .

A stronger fence was erected by CalTrans in August 2016, as reported in this article .  Even so, the following week, there were still homeless camped in the area, and police found a hash oil operation and drugs at the camp, as reported here Gilman homeless encampment in Berkeley, California

In December 2016, CalTrans was sued by civil rights groups over alleged improprieties in its effort to clean up the perennial nuisance, as reported in this article .

In January 2017, the homeless were still camping in this area, and a large fire broke out at the camp, as reported in this article .  Not long after the fire, I visited the site and found a great amount of trash and debris on the bicycle path just across the street from the underpass, along with tents actually set up by the homeless in the middle of the bicycle and pedestrian path.  I saw food dumped out adjacent to the sidewalk and trash strewn over an area about 100 yards long.

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Trash along the bike path

On February 9, I visited the site again and found that the entire area under the freeway had been fenced off by CalTrans, and I saw a man in a day-glo uniform at the site, so I wondered whether CalTrans had finally done what needed to be done and installed a security guard at the site to prevent the homeless from returning, knocking down the fence, and setting up their camp again.

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Gilman St Underpass south fenced off
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Gilman St underpass north fenced off

It remains to be seen if this will be effective in curtailing the years-long very serious crime and nuisance and public safety  issue that has been associated with the Gilman Homeless encampment.

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Homeless camp on sidewalk just up the street from the Gilman Underpass, Feb 2017

On February 17 2017, one of the displaced homeless from the Gilman camp had moved up the street, and was arrested by police for going on a rampage, slashing tents and attacking other homeless people in the area with a sword, as reported in this article .   Also on the very same day, again right in the area of the Gilman underpass at Highway 80, a pedestrian who’d wandered onto highway 80 near Gilman street, was struck and killed when hit by a vehicle, as reported in this article .  It is quite likely this was another of the homeless individuals from this area.

As I hope is suggested by this summary of serious problems at a homeless camp in Berkeley, the fact that a certain handful of people may be “homeless” seems far less relevant a problem, than the amount of crime, nuisance, health hazards, public safety issues, not to mention liability for both the city of Berkeley and CalTrans, which are created by these individuals through the continual nuisance of the camp, and amplified by the misguided attorneys who file lawsuits against cities which attempt to deal as best they can with these serious problems.

The problem of “homelessness” in this case is I believe eclipsed by the social problems associated with the camp.  For this reason, I’d argue that it does no good for cities to tolerate such problematic encampments, on the misguided rationale that they represent “freedom” for some people — people who steadfastly refuse all city services provided to the homeless (which in the case of Berkeley are quite generous — see the link to facts on services here:  facts here ).  Rather, it seems that a better course of action is an early intervention, to act early on and refuse to allow such problematic camps to continue, to abate the nuisance before it becomes so large and widespread and the residents there so entrenched that they hire attorneys to help them maintain persist in maintaining their nuisance.  I think that dispersing the homeless into separate areas results in overall less serious impact for the city.

But in general, I think that people who refuse the shelter a city is providing to them, who refuse all city services, and who want to live on public property within that city in such a way that can’t be done without causing serious problems for the city, present a dilemma that more and more cities will need to consider finding  more effective methods to cope with. We have seen that doing nothing doesn’t solve the problem, offering services doesn’t solve the problem, offering shelter doesn’t solve the problem, and intermittent/bi-monthly efforts to abate the nuisance, also doesnt’ solve the problem.  Something new needs to be tried.

Taking a longer look at this issue,  this Berkeleyside article , as well as this one provide a history of homelessness in Berkeley.

Facts about Berkeley’s homeless population and the services it provides to them can be found here.