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The judge, not the mayor, was right about the camp


It’s really unfortunate when the mayor of a city blames a judge, who issued an opinion defending the rights of people with disabilities, for that city’s failure to solve a homeless problem.

It is particularly unfortunate when this city is known as the birthplace of the disability rights movement.

The city, in this case, is Berkeley; the mayor is Jesse Arreguín. On October 14, Jesse published a newsletter touting Berkeley’s response to homelessness. Among the accomplishments he listed were the opening of a new shelter on Grayson Street (he included a photo of smiling elected officials and administrators at a groundbreaking ceremony); secure parking adjacent to the shelter for people living in recreational vehicles; hotels that had been brought online with state and federal funding to take those most vulnerable to COVID-19 off the streets (a notable achievement); and the 250 tons of garbage and debris that the city had collected from the camps. Then came a section, “The challenges of the Caltrans camps. Here’s where the newsletter went off the rails.

Homeless people have lived for years in settlements along the Caltrans right-of-way. Undesirable as neighbors, they were kicked out of Berkeley. They are found next to and under the highway. Further west, they would be treading water.

The problem is, we don’t want it there either. Complaints pour in: their camps are unsightly. They are dangerous.

But where can they go?

To justify the sweep of the encampments, the city and Caltrans needed an answer, or at least a facsimile of an answer. What they came up with was the hyperbolically named Horizon Transitional Village – a shelter in a converted warehouse made up of large rooms full of rows of tents not big enough to stand on. It seems that no one bothered to ask the people in the camps, “Will this work for you?” They were obviously absent from the dedication ceremony.

So what happened? Horizon opened up, Seabreeze and Downstairs camps at University Avenue and Interstate 80 were swept away, and down and behold, hardly any of the camps entered the shelter, in some cases preferring to move to a plot. of Caltrans land west of the freeway at Ashby Avenue even less secure than their old camps at the University Avenue interchange.

Enter Where are we going berkeley (WDWGB) and the courts. WDWGB is a grassroots organization made up of homeless and homeless people. It has longstanding ties to the encampments along the I-80 corridor. It provided the people living there with material support to ensure their safety on the streets and advocacy for them to access affordable housing. When it was founded in September 2019, around 160 people lived in these camps; since then, some have been accommodated, some have disappeared, some have died. Now that number is closer to 30.

So why should those who remain not go to a shelter?

The WDWGB is inspired by the people it serves. He was sitting with some people in the encampment west of the freeway in Ashby. He listened. He heard about trauma, vulnerability and disability. He did not hear “I don’t want to enter Horizon”, but rather, “I cannot enter Horizon. It’s as inaccessible to me as if I had no legs and it was up five flights of stairs. And that’s why WDWGB has sued Caltrans to stop further evictions until there is a real answer to the question, “Where are we going?”

And it is in answering this question that the court was right and the mayor was wrong.

The mayor writes:

The judge effectively ruled that if an unhoused person refuses services, they should be left alone even if shelter is available. Therefore, the Ashby / I-80 encampments could not be resolved.

No, that is not what the judge “actually ruled”. Read the court order. Unlike the city, the court listened. He listened to the heartbreaking testimonies of human beings whose experiences of abuse and violence had left them with what the court called “mental disabilities.” US District Court Judge Edward Chen is a cautious judge. He wrote in his order: “Although the Court cannot at this stage definitively conclude that the eleven individual plaintiffs have mental disabilities which would prevent them from staying at Horizon… He goes on to give examples, which are worth considering. be read, and concludes: “In light of the foregoing, the Court concludes that the plaintiffs have sufficiently demonstrated a likelihood of irreparable harm to the individual plaintiffs if the encampments where they live were to be closed, leaving Horizon as the only alternative.

Judge Chen did not rule that “if a homeless person refuses service, they should be left alone.” A person with a disability who cannot use a bathroom without a handrail or enter a restaurant where the aisles are not wide enough for their wheelchair will not “refuse service”. Complainants are not either Where are we going Berkeley c. Caltrans who cannot enter Horizon. Berkeley is the birthplace of the disability rights movement, home of the Center for Independent Living. We shouldn’t need a federal judge to teach us this lesson.

And here’s another thing the judge got it right. The city and Caltrans had an alternative. Judge Chen noted in his opinion that the city and Caltrans had discussed setting up a temporary outdoor shelter at the now fenced site where the Seabreeze encampment once stood. On March 10, 2020, Berkeley City Council unanimously approved a measure proposed by Mayor Arreguín to enter into a lease with Caltrans to set up such a shelter, complete with toilets, hand washing stations and garbage collection.

Mayor Arreguin’s proposal was excellent. It would have worked for a lot of people who haven’t entered Horizon. Why did these discussions fail? The mayor’s bulletin provides no answer, but it is a question that deserves to be asked. What happened to his excellent proposal? Why hasn’t he gone anywhere?

The answer could lead beyond blame to real solutions.

Osha Neumann is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in Where Do We Go Berkeley v. Caltrans. He is a member of the advisory board of Where Do We Go Berkeley.


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