BERKELEY, Calif. — This eccentric Northern California enclave was a sanctuary long before the designation became a must-have merit badge for any left-leaning city.
Berkeley politicians proclaimed the place a refuge for Navy sailors resisting deployment to the Vietnam War nearly a half-century ago. It was the birth of a movement to protect the outcast — and, in some cases, the outlaw — from rules that this beat-of-its-own-drum city and its followers found immoral, most recently the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
But California’s housing crisis is testing whether Berkeley can remain that kind of place.
Faced with sharp criticism from a changing population, city leaders have banned people from living in recreational vehicles here, proving that even the most accepting of cities is not immune to the demands that often accompany wealth and gentrification. Businesses and residents have complained about the RVs’ blighting of city streets and the burden they place on public safety and sanitation services.
“We had to do something,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín, referring to the March city council vote. “The ordinance we passed, I will admit we rushed into it. But we were facing a lot of pressure from businesses and residents.”
The outcry over the ban was instant. The anger came from progressive neighbors such as Oakland, which feared that a scores-long caravan of RVs would soon head across the invisible city limits to its streets. The council suspended the law’s enforcement until a more collective approach to the borderless problem might be found.
But Berkeley’s move serves as a parable for how one seemingly small government decision and a lack of basic coordination can rumble through a region short on housing and high on frustration. The ban was itself a reaction to steps larger cities and the state have taken that created homeless migration around the Bay Area, disruptive and endless, in a region with the highest housing costs in the country.
“It’s a Catch-22,” said Tom Valledao, 66 and homeless, who worked for decades breaking down ships along the docks of the East Bay.
Valledao lives in a decrepit camper along Eighth Street in Berkeley’s Gilman neighborhood, a onetime warehouse district that is rapidly evolving, with wine-tasting rooms, microbreweries and stores selling custom furniture made from reclaimed teak. A Whole Foods occupies a block around the corner from Valledao’s “turtle shell,” as he calls his curbside squat.
“If they kick people out of their campers,” he said, “then there will just be more people on the streets.”
Many homeless people in California live without any kind of shelter — nearly half of the nation’s unsheltered homeless people are here — a brutal testament to years of failed housing policy and a lack of political will at nearly every level of government. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) proposed in his first budget this month to double the annual amount the state will spend on homelessness, to $1 billion.
The increase reflects a bewildering fact given the resources already devoted to the issue: The problem, according to just-completed homeless counts in cities across California, is undoubtedly getting worse. Preliminary numbers released late last week from San Francisco and Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, show significant increases in the homeless populations during the past two years. Berkeley’s rise was 43 percent.
Estimates place the homeless population in the Bay Area, a region encompassing more than 100 cities, at more than 30,000. A deep analysis of the issue, published last month by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, estimated that the cost of permanently housing the region’s homeless at more than $12 billion.
But building affordable housing in California is a growing political challenge as property values skyrocket along with the expectations of the area’s residents. Last week, in the face of enduring opposition, state lawmakers placed on hold legislation that would allow state officials to override local planning decisions in some cases to increase urban housing stock.
“The pressure we are feeling as local politicians is telling us that, as people spend more and more on housing, they feel more and more aggrieved by so-called blight,” said Berkeley Councilmember Kate Harrison, who opposed the RV ban. “Only the 1 percent here feel economically secure.”
Across the bay in San Francisco, which a recent report found has the highest concentration of billionaires of any city in the world, nearly every proposal to address homelessness has met with public ire in the past few months.
Mayor London Breed (D) was shouted down in a recent forum about her proposal to open a “navigation center” along the scenic bayside Embarcadero. The center would be a temporary shelter for the homeless where people are guided toward health services and permanent housing.
GoFundMe campaigns have emerged in wealthy neighborhoods to finance lawsuits against affordable housing proposals. Two state business groups and an anti-tax organization recently filed suit to overturn Proposition C, a measure city voters passed last year that imposes a tax on large businesses to raise an estimated $300 million a year for homeless initiatives.
Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, a vocal supporter of the tax, donated $30 million to the University of California at San Francisco this month to study the causes of homelessness. Benioff is a San Francisco native.
The rising anger is in large part a result of just how visible the problem is here. An estimated 67 percent of the Bay Area’s homeless population is “unsheltered,” meaning they live and sleep outdoors. In the United States, only Los Angeles has a higher rate.
“That is tragically bad, an utter failure of policy,” said Adrian Covert, vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council, an influential regional business association. “A lot of this opposition has been an embarrassment to many of us, but I think regular people are hungry for solutions.”
The council’s report emphasized regional cooperation in a part of the state where that has been largely unknown over the years.
It recommended the creation of a shared data trove detailing city-by-city housing stock, programs directed at homelessness, and other information that could be used to avoid duplication. Covert said cities and counties also should share funds across boundaries, a bureaucratic leap.
“We should strive to have the big answer — that is, that we are building here, we are building there, we are building everywhere,” Covert said. “This would provide the assurance of burden-sharing, which the chronic opposition is suspicious is actually happening.”
The Berkeley vote to ban RV living dismayed Oakland officials. The two cities are inseparable — the iconic Telegraph Avenue runs from historic Oakland to the University of California at Berkeley campus — and when one sneezes the other often catches a cold.
The sneeze this time was Berkeley effectively telling the residents of about 200 RVs in the city that they would have to move immediately.
Oakland braced for the symptoms: more RVs on its streets at a time when city officials are searching for sites where their own RV-dwellers can park safely and receive services.
“I will say it was a little surprising for Berkeley to pass the ordinance without having talked to us first,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said. “Everyone wants a solution that doesn’t just push the problem to someone else’s doorstep. It’s neither effective nor compassionate.”
Schaaf was born and raised in Oakland, a proud daughter of the city and defender of its place as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and the poor. She calls the city’s homelessness a “soul-scathing” problem, a challenge to even the most tolerant, who often feel powerless to act.
“I recognize that most of our problems don’t stop at our municipal boundaries,” she said. “We are interdependent, as human beings, which is so important to remember as we tackle this crisis of homelessness, and as governmental entities.”
During her tenure, Schaaf has pioneered the use of “cabin communities” as a cost-effective step between the streets and permanent housing. These are collections of small cabins, similar in size and design to a suburban backyard playhouse, that in three locations have replaced squalid homeless camps in the past year.
To the homeless, the collection of cabins provides shelter and allows streetside communities to remain largely intact.
More than half of those who have passed through the cabins have gone into permanent housing at a per-person cost half that of a typical shelter bed. The areas around the communities are then designated “no-camping zones,” which has won the support of neighboring businesses.
“It’s an ever-changing group of people from a lot of different situations and with a lot of different personalities,” said Heather Kato, 40, who grew up in the East Bay and for the past month has shared a cabin beneath Interstate 580.
On this day, some of the community’s 40 residents lined up along Northgate Avenue for a chance to bathe, courtesy of Lava Mae, an organization that visits weekly with mobile showers and clean towels. It calls its mission “radical hospitality.”
Residents carry their toiletries in Ziploc bags from behind the little settlement’s guarded gate onto the sidewalk, chatting as they wait their turn inside the small trailer. Afterward, Kato, who said she is escaping a violent home life, will rest inside her cabin, something she was unable to do when she lived in a regular shelter that closes during the day.
“The more you participate, the more you get out of this,” said Kato, who is looking for work as a chef or dental hygienist, both of which she is trained to do. “And if you don’t want to be here, you do not have to be.”
This city of 120,000 people has the highest per capita homeless population in the Bay Area. Arreguín, whose own family experienced housing evictions in San Francisco when he was a child, said those numbers have been rising in part because of that city’s decision to clear several street encampments during the past year.
Some of those displaced from San Francisco have landed here — another sneeze, another cold. He estimates that a recently completed homeless census will show that as many as 1,500 people in Berkeley are now without a place to live — a two-thirds increase in the past two years.
“The biggest challenge we face is that we do not have a lot of available land,” said Arreguín, who in his two years in office has doubled the number of shelter beds and has sharply increased spending on homeless programs. “Had we had a large enough parcel, we would have already opened a safe parking site for these RVs.”
The RVs used to park along the Berkeley waterfront, property that belongs to the state. Arreguín wanted to temporarily look the other way, allowing the settlement there to continue given the lack of options, until residents complained.
Harrison, the Berkeley council member, recalled a constituent saying: “I paid a million dollars for my place, and they have a better view.”
Under legal threat from the state, Berkeley officials pushed out the waterfront campers last year, scattering the RVs around the city and, in Arreguín’s assessment, “making them that much harder to serve.”
The complaints continued to arrive by phone, email and in public forums: The RVs are unsightly fire hazards, their residents potentially crime causing, and they dump waste into overwhelmed storm drains.
“I think we are at a tipping point in our community,” Arreguín said. “There have been real impacts that have negatively affected businesses and residents in our community. But we also have to realize that the most significant impacts are on those without a place to live.”
Many of the RVs are parked now in twos and threes along the side streets of gentrifying West Berkeley. Some are deluxe, sleek tubes with tinted windows and full kitchens. Others, like Valledao’s, might not actually be mobile if they were forced to move.
Valledao has been on disability for years, having contracted asbestos-related illnesses from his work in the shipyards. He lost his apartment last year when his roommate died and he could no longer afford the rent.
He shifted his stuff into the little camper, his Harley-Davidson parked behind it. A small, puttering generator powers a TV and radio. A patch of artificial grass serves as a doormat.
Valledao has never really left the Bay Area. But he might have to soon. As he slept on a recent Friday morning, Berkeley officials impounded his mobile home, hitching it up to a tow truck while he was still inside. Now he is staying with his daughter, his clothes and belongings still inside the camper.
“They took my home,” he said. “Now I’m homeless.”