BERKELEY -- A City Council workshop Tuesday on homeless issues and Councilman Jesse Arreguin's Compassionate Sidewalks proposal rekindled animosity between those who want the city to address the causes and solutions to homelessness and those who say Berkeley's primary focus should be addressing inappropriate street behavior.
This battle was most recently fought over Measure S, also known as Civic Sidewalks, a measure that would have banned sitting on business district sidewalks. It was defeated in the November 2012 election 47.7 percent to 52.3 percent.
Arreguin said his proposal envisions a broad community conversation on resolving issues of housing and homelessness that would culminate in recommendations to the City Council for concrete solutions.
He had originally proposed a process whereby two new groups would address the issue: a subcommittee of four councilmembers and a committee open broadly to the community.
By the time the item came up for consideration at 11 p.m. at the council meeting following the workshop, Arreguin had decided against creating the council subcommittee. He said that staffing it would be costly and that he would move forward, outside the council arena, to establish the community group.
Osha Neumann, an attorney and longtime activist on homeless issues, said scrapping the subcommittee was a good move.
"I think it would have been another layer that would not be responsive to a broad community discussion," Neumann said. "It would be stalemated between those who want more punitive measures and those interested in trying to find real solutions."
Clashing views of city priorities on homeless issues emerged when speakers addressed the council at the beginning of its workshop.
Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District and strong Measure S supporter, said the council should focus on measures to correct inappropriate street behavior.
"Basically, I'd say that problematic behaviors are our No. 1 priority rather than rehashing a lot of the 'where do we spend our money?' in terms of homeless services," he said, contending that many of the people who act out on Telegraph Avenue are housed and therefore, "housing is not a solution for a lot of them."
Peterson asked the council to address "possible consideration of new behavior laws."
While Peterson was the only speaker Tuesday evening calling for punitive measures, Mayor Tom Bates did so at a Monday meeting of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.
Bates, also a Measure S supporter, said police should start enforcing existing laws in commercial districts such as smoking bans, vendors working without permits, stationing two dogs close together and more. "We want to send a clear message," the mayor told the chamber.
Most of the public speakers at the Tuesday workshop called for a more compassionate approach. "The easy answer is 'Let's get tough,'" argued Michael Diehl, an advocate on behalf of the homeless and mentally ill. "That doesn't work."
During the council discussion, the need for permanent housing for homeless people was highlighted.
Elaine deColignly, executive director of EveryOneHome, the Alameda County program coordinating homeless services, noted that even those with mental problems, when they are housed, "get better ... and do not need the same level of intensive service."
DeColignly underscored the need to coordinate services and a system she called "no wrong door," where consumers do not have to go randomly from one agency to another seeking services, but, through a coordinated process, are referred to appropriate and available services.
While the city itself has a panoply of services -- its own mental health division, a mobile crisis team and a mental health team in the police department -- Jane Micallef, director of the Berkeley Health Housing and Community Services Department, said there is a lack coordination among services. She added that there has been a loss of 40 percent of the staff in her department over the last five years.
On the bright side, Bates pointed to the amount of funds Berkeley spends on homelessness and related services. "It's pretty amazing. When you look at all the combined sources of funding, we're spending over $8 million a year on this problem," he said. "Obviously it's a situation that continues to be a challenge for us."