About a dozen self-described “Freedom Sleepers” set up tents and camped outside on the steps of the old Berkeley City Hall on Monday to fight for homeless rights, as some members of the city council want to step up police patrols in the parks to fight off unsanitary conditions for families.
The protesters wanted their tents and protest to grab attention hours before the city council is set to vote Tuesday on two measures: The erection of an 18-story luxury housing complex called the Harold Square Project downtown, and the addition of a municipal code that they say targets the homeless by making it a crime to take up more than two square feet of space on the sidewalk. The ordinance would also restrict shopping cars from being in one spot for more than an hour, enforced from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
The sleep-out was organized by Jesse Arreguin, city councilman who is running for mayor; Alana Banks, a Cal student and member of the Black Student Union; Civil rights lawyer Osha Neumann who represents Streets Are For Everyone; Kelly Hammargren who is part of Sustainable Berkeley Coalition; and Sally Hindman of Youth Spirit Artworks.
Banks said the policies proposed are an attack on black lives. “By targeting a group which is 59 percent African American in a city where African Americans are less than 8 percent of the population, they further criminalize black people,” she said. “These policies are a part of the city’s long-term strategy of continually displacing Black people from the city. If black lives really matter in Berkeley, the council will not pass these laws.”
But several on the council don't see it this way.
"Caring for people, especially those who are less fortunate who do not have homes is important to Berkeley residents," Councilwoman Linda Maio wrote in a council report seeking more police at Ohlone Park, which has been littered with drugs and trash. "We have some serious safety issues at Ohlone Park. the park is daily becoming a campground, strewn with trash, monopolized by groups of people and their animals."
Maio, Mayor Tom Bates and two other council members are behind these efforts to clean up the city and say they have to protect the families and businesses in Berkeley.
But Bates and the others also want to help the homeless, they say, by creating storage space – up to 100 bins for personal belongings, providing more bathrooms and mobile showers in downtown and along Telegraph Avenue.
As a separate agenda item, the city is recommending that Leah Simon-Weisberg become the elected representative for the poor on the Human Welfare and Community Action Commission.