Homeless at People’s, by Dylan Crary

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: sometimes the editors at Oatmeal HQ get weary (but only a little bit!) of reading all of your wonderful lighthearted pieces. On these days, we usually curl up by the fireside and spend time doing somber tasks, like tackling math problems or watching The Pianist. Here’s a piece that fully brought us to tears (in a good way, though).

People’s Park, once famous for hosting contentious protests in the late sixties and early seventies, is now known by all locals as the epicenter of homelessness in Berkeley. People’s Park supports a fluctuating homeless population of anywhere between twenty and a hundred people. The long-term frequenters of People’s Park are drawn by the meals offered by the non-profit East Bay Food not Bombs, the available restrooms, a security in numbers mentality, and the established custom that as long as one isn’t hurting anybody they will be left alone. As one park user has noted, People’s Park is one of the last places in the bay that “people can be people”. Bay Area cities are increasingly squeezing out the homeless figure. For example, last November, San Francisco passed the sit-lie ordinance that prohibits sitting or lying down on sidewalks or public places. People’s Park is one of the few remaining areas where homeless can legally exist.

For many the Berkeley landmark is a dark blot in an otherwise well functioning city. The issues are multiple. First, crime and violence are no strangers to the park. Drug use and mental instability that often lead to homelessness in the first place are undoubtedly a driver of the criminal outbursts that plague the area around the park. Secondly, students who reside nearby the park are in constant competition for use of the space. By day, panhandlers station themselves along the main streets, giving little peace to the students walking to school; by night, the homeless fill up the sidewalks across from the park (nobody is allowed in the park after 11), taking over the walkways in front of the adjacent student apartments. This constant unwanted interaction has many students ill at ease at Berkeley, it’s no surprise that antagonism continues to grow between the two populations. Finally, there’s serious concern for the homeless themselves. Homeless activists ask, if there are no sufficient structures in place to protect our most vulnerable citizens then is it right to legislate against them? Berkeley, despite its liberal nature, has been included on the meanest cities list by both the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness with rules in place that make a harsh reality for the homeless even harsher.

To deal with these problems it’s important to understand the homeless that populate People’s Park. While each individual undoubtedly has his or her own unique path to homelessness, I want to attempt to crudely categorize the homeless of People’s Park into two categories: the chronically homeless and the street kids. The chronically homeless tend to be older and seem to be homeless because of an inability to maintain a more traditional life, usually because of mental illness, drug addiction, or both. Street kids are much younger and more vocal, a residue of the punk movement they often choose to be homeless which allows them certain freedoms and status. Both subgroups are susceptible to health issues that come with being homeless. Both have been seen to cause trouble in the street and intrude on students’ and residents’ peace of mind. But the two subgroups may require different responses from the community in order to solve the noted issues.

On its face, this is in issue of shelter. There is a clear lack of available housing. Governments can respond by creating more public housing, or as suggested by the UN, take a more indirect approach and create effective mechanisms to facilitate the delivery of services to combat homelessness from the private and community sectors. The city of Berkeley should open channels of alternative financing mechanisms that might better suit the needs of the homeless. Encouraging work-live halfway homes where residents can do labor appropriate to their skills and capabilities of the residents in exchange for a room to stay in would be a positive step. Berkeley could also think about creating space where homeless communities can self-operate and set up camps legally. Directly or indirectly, the city should insure adequate housing that offers privacy, safety, and accessibility.

Of equal importance are the societal drivers and impacts of homelessness. People’s Park regulars have become (or have chosen to be) excluded from mainstream society. Many have nowhere to go and no connections to lean on. The lack of social capital, networks or human resources, leave the homeless of people’s park with very few options but isolation. One goal by the city could be to help foster a sense of community within People’s Park, with a stronger community the homeless could look out for each more often and collectively include themselves in the political discourse of issues surrounding People’s Park. That reintroduction is key to increasing political participation of the homeless, creating a more inclusive dialogue to deal with the issue, and thereby strengthening civil society. Of great importance, is that health and education services to deal with drug abuse and mental illness be available and possibly required for long term homeless. Finally, security around People’s Park is required to maintain a safe and stable community.

Urban governance comes into play when we attempt to give the homeless a voice, ie the ability to participate in civil society. Ideally, public discussion with all stakeholders involved would lead to some solutions to the issues of People’s Park. Of course this may be impossible if certain parties do not want to enter the discussion or are unable to participate. In this case it’s a difficult decision of society to plan for those that are unable to participate or plan against those that refuse. One option may be to help create ethical and competent leadership within the troubled community to speak for all. Regardless, the government is responsible to help finance agreed upon methods to solve the problems.

The right to the city suggests that everyone should have equitable access to all the opportunities the city has to offer. Space such as streets and parks should be able to used by all. Does this mean homeless should be able to exert their right to use public space regardless of property laws and city ordinances that make space less available for them. Or does it mean that other residents can cry foul when the homeless monopolization of certain space (sidewalks or People’s Park for example) intrudes on their right to use certain space as they wish. The conflicting interpretation of rights are largely responsible for the issues at hand. The strategies Berkeley takes to deal with the issue has national ramifications as successful methods could be replicated across the country where dozens of thousands of chronically homeless exist.

So what should be done? Help for the chronically homeless is necessary. Innovative programs, educating workshops, and social services need to be put into place to solve chronic homelessness. Until urban society decides to allocate more resources for the downtrodden with sweeping measures to help drug addicts and the mentally unstable off the streets, homelessness will always be an urban issue. The street kids require different strategies, what can you do when individuals refuse to partake in mainstream society? Some strategies include rules against aggressive panhandling or other activities that make local residents uncomfortable. Clearing the streets through law, though, will require increased enforcement and will put more strain on the prison system. Combined, the lack of sufficient shelter and the continued annihilation of space by law could leave the homeless body with no place to exist, an intrusion on any form of right to the city. For now, People’s Park serves as mitigation, not solution, to the issue. Requiring fewer resources than full social programs, the city has created a People’s Park only security team which can get to know the regulars and keep a watchful eye over the park, thereby reducing crime. The homeless still struggle and nearby students still complain of an awkward existence with their roofless neighbors, but still People’s Park serves as a recreational space for all. Until larger measures are taken, People’s Park is a place where all people can tenuously exist together.
Dylan Crary would prefer to be called by his nickname, Monsieur Poopypants.

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