Michael Lee started living on the streets of San Francisco last May. He had traveled to the city from Las Vegas to seek medical treatment. When he arrived, he searched for cheap, temporary housing in some of San Francisco’s most affordable neighborhoods, but he had seriously underestimated the cost of living in the nation’s most expensive city.
“I was under the impression the rent was $300 a month, and I brought the resources for sixty days,” he said in an interview. “I was going to go back to Las Vegas afterwards … . But the first place I walked into, they told me it was $300 a week. The next was $400 a week, and then $500. People were laughing at me — $300 a week is actually cheap on Skid Row. So I wound up living on the streets.”
Lee soon heard of a large encampment in Berkeley that activists had set up to protest the US Postal Service’s controversial plan to sell Berkeley’s historic downtown post office building. The plan sparked fierce opposition in Berkeley, not only from homeless people, but also from progressive activists and the city’s elected leadership. Lee decided to move across the bay and join the protest and quickly became a leader of the Berkeley encampment. He advocated for a plan to transform the old post office building into a community resource: “A homeless contact center run by homeless people,” he said.
“Why [were] homeless people the main defenders?” Lee asked rhetorically, referring to the post office. “Without community resources we can’t get a hand up. There’s just no place to go. This is where we live, unfortunately — on the sidewalks. We don’t want to live in a community where private developers, the One Percenters, have everything.
“We’re not going to be homeless forever,” Lee continued. “Eventually, we will recover from homelessness because we’re pretty determined individuals. That’s something that people with houses truly need to understand. We are going to be rejoining the community.”
After a federal judge granted the City of Berkeley’s request for a temporary restraining order to block the US Postal Service’s planned sale of the downtown post office, the USPS announced that it was shelving its plans to sell the building. Several months later, some of the people in the post office camp set up a larger homeless encampment, which became known as “Liberty City” or “Liberty Village.” They established this camp on the lawn in front of old City Hall, a block away, to protest a new city council plan to enact stricter rules targeting homeless people. During the holidays, the City of Berkeley cleared out Liberty City, and the homeless people who had been part of it scattered to other spots in the city and to locations throughout the Bay Area. But the post office camp, now more than four hundred days old, still remains.
Over the years, Berkeley, like most liberal communities, has been comfortable with the idea of the homeless being victims. But many Berkeley residents and business owners grow uneasy when homeless people organize and use the creative tactics of the labor and civil rights movements.
Last year, Berkeley’s homeless people did just that. They created what they called, “intentional communities” or “occupations,” like Liberty City and the post office camp, not just as a protest tactic, but also as places where they could gain more control over their lives and implement their own ideas for dealing with homelessness.
Many drew on previous experience in other movements. “A lot of us are older activists,” Lee explained. “Our ideas come out of the 1960s, and even before, from the 1930s. Homeless people have always formed communities, whether we were considered hoboes or homeless people or just bums. Hobo jungles were intentional communities, too, based on an unconscious understanding of the need for mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.”
During an interview while Liberty City was still operating, Lee said, “People police themselves. I see people out there in the middle of the night with flashlights picking up trash. I see them chase off anti-social elements. If you want to talk about the solution to homelessness, all you have to do is walk down to Berkeley City Hall and the post office. Is it a perfect solution? No. Housing is the permanent solution to homelessness. But this is a helluva good start.”
City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who is running for mayor this year, said he thinks the residents of Liberty City did a good job of keeping it safe and well-run. “Liberty City shows that homeless people can create a community,” he said. But he cautioned that such communities can’t “be completely removed from the city. There should be an ongoing city presence, that might include homeless outreach staff, mental health workers, or others.”
Nearly everyone agrees that the answer to homelessness is permanent housing. But the state and federal governments do not provide the funding needed to build permanent housing for homeless people. In fact, over the decades, national policies have eliminated housing for poor people and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Local governments provide homeless shelters and services, but they are unable to meet the needs of the huge number of people living on the streets. Berkeley alone has 1,200 homeless residents, according to city officials. Further, many homeless people don’t like shelters, because they can’t bring their pets, or because most shelters require you to be inside by a certain hour in the evening and to leave during the day.
As a result, some cities, including Portland and Seattle, have approved the creation of tent cities as an alternative form of temporary housing for homeless people. And Berkeley’s experience with Liberty City revealed that a tent city has the potential to work in the East Bay as well.
But while Berkeley views itself as a progressive community, it remains to be seen whether the city would ever approve a tent city plan. After all, the council voted on December 1 to green-light the city’s crackdown on the homeless.
Mike Zint has been homeless since 2000. For many years, he lived out of his car, moving from town to town. He said he began organizing during the Occupy movement several years ago in San Francisco.
Zint said that after San Francisco police “crushed” the Occupy encampment, he and other homeless activists staged a series of protests, including one during the America’s Cup yacht race. Then they set up an “Occupy Staples” protest in San Francisco to demonstrate against Staples’ decision to open postal kiosks, which activists viewed as a further “privatization of the post office,” he said.
Zint said that, over the years, San Francisco has hardened its stance against marginalized people, like the homeless. Politicians “pass laws to get the homeless out of sight of the businesses, so shoppers don’t see them,” he said. “San Francisco has an image as a world class city, but there are no bathrooms. There are no shower facilities. They say there are only a few thousand homeless when there are twice as many. With the shuffle going on, they just move them. One day this street looks good because they’ve cleared people out, and then they get rid of them somewhere else.”
Eventually, Zint and other demonstrators moved the San Francisco protest in front of Staples to the Staples store in Berkeley. Then, “last year, we learned the post office was going to sell the main building downtown. So we removed everything from Staples, and took the corner of the post office instead,” he said. “We put the occupation right there.
“Over the last year, we’ve been organizing the homeless into an actual movement,” he continued. “Our intention has always been to occupy a much larger piece of property, and get one of the Bay Area cities to allow homeless people to take care of themselves. Berkeley, because of its reputation, is a good place to do this. People here are genuine and care. The university and high school students are incredible. The teachers are very good. It’s night and day compared to San Francisco.”
At first, fighting the Postal Service in Berkeley brought homeless people together with city authorities in a loose-knit coalition that included Mayor Tom Bates, Councilmember Linda Maio, and local legal and political activists. While rallies and court actions sought to halt the sale of the post office building, the encampment on the post office steps became a constant presence and visible evidence of resistance.
Within the encampment, homeless people developed their own community. They organized themselves and worked together. They made decisions collectively. And they developed their own ideas about what causes homelessness and devised short-term and long-term solutions to it.
Last fall, while Liberty City was still operating, Michael Lee said, “People in the community came out and looked at us, and maybe at first they thought, ‘Look at the poor homeless people.’ But now we’re creating the new world in the shell of the old. What we’re doing in terms of mutual aid and cooperation can be applied anywhere. They’re going to have to finally see that organizing is the solution to homelessness.”
Paul Kealoha Blake, who is director of the East Bay Media Center on Addison Street and a business owner sympathetic to the homeless, said residents of Liberty City maintained order in their camp. “I think that Liberty Village and its organizers did an excellent job of setting standards of no drugs and alcohol,” he said.
But the coalition of homeless activists and city politicians didn’t last beyond the post office battle. Several months after the Postal Service announced that it no longer planned to sell the building, Bates and Maio brought the homeless-crackdown ordinance, sought by the Downtown Business Association, before the council. The new ordinance prohibits people from lying in planter beds, tying possessions to poles or trees or keeping them within two feet of a tree well or planter, taking up more than two square feet of space with belongings, and keeping a shopping cart in one place for more than an hour during the day. It also further penalizes urinating and defecating in public, which are already against the law.
Both Blake and Arreguin, who voted against the new ordinance, believe that homelessness has become an overly polarized issue in Berkeley, rather than one in which different parts of the community find common ground. “The business community would like to see people not camping out in doorways,” Arreguin noted. “Business people want a long-term solution. Homeless people did a good job on changing perceptions of homelessness at Liberty City. They set ground rules and enforced them. They had a process for that, where everybody participated in the meetings.”
Before Berkeley cleared out Liberty City, Zint told me that he and other homeless activists were attempting to develop “an actual city through a bunch of homeless people coming together. We have a community here. And if we can pull it off properly here, we can use this as a model to be done all over. They’ll begin listening to our message, and that is ‘that we should be able to take care of ourselves.'”
Berkeley is not the only community where homeless people have proposed running their own encampments. A homeless protest and occupation in Portland last year evolved into Dignity Village, which now exists with the city’s approval. Portland, in fact, is debating the creation of new, similar encampments.
The Seattle City Council has already approved three new tent cities, each housing one hundred residents, although they will be run by service providers, rather than the homeless themselves. They’re estimated to cost $200,000 per year in trash collection and portable toilets, but that cost is less than a traditional shelter. In Honolulu, which has also passed multiple ordinances cracking down on sitting and sleeping in public, Mayor Kirk Caldwell has set up a new homeless camp that is made up of shipping containers.
Berkeley also had an earlier experience with a homeless camp, called Rainbow Village, in what is now Cesar Chavez Park at the marina. Mostly, it consisted of an area where people could park and live in their cars. After an incident in which someone was killed, however, the city closed it down.
“But I do not believe that the Rainbow Village should be evaluated solely on that tragedy,” Blake cautioned. “A close and collaborative relationship between homeless leadership and the City of Berkeley can work and was in fact working at Liberty City.”
One big question is where such a camp could be located in Berkeley. Rainbow Village was far from transit and services needed by homeless people. Arreguin said, however, that when Liberty City was operating in downtown, his office got complaints from neighbors living near the old City Hall. “The camp had a spillover of people who were attracted to it and who engaged in inappropriate behavior,” he said. “Not everyone respects our laws, and the perception of homeless people is often based on those examples. But we need to be sensitive to the concerns of neighbors.”
For their part, however, most homeless people in Berkeley complain that they are demonized, and they established Liberty City partly in response. Many homeless people are also veterans, and have to reconcile the irony of having fought in the military, only to later find themselves social outcasts in the country that they had defended.
“I spent ten years in the Navy upholding the Constitution, from 1979 to 1989,” said James Kelly, a former resident of Liberty City. “I believe a person should not have to worry day-to-day where they’re going to lay their head or get their next meal. That should just be a given.”
Andre Cameron, another Liberty City resident, said his experience in Berkeley at the encampment was dramatically different from the time he spent in Los Angeles, the last city he lived in. “In LA, they don’t have anything like this. They have Skid Row,” he said. “A huge amount of people live on the street in downtown LA. There’s no help for them. Here, there’s a community. I feel the love here. I feel that, here in Berkeley, there’s at least some hope. There are people here that care. If I had to choose to be homeless anyplace in the world, it would be here in Berkeley.
“It’s embarrassing, if you’ve never been homeless,” he continued. “People in LA look at homeless people like a plague. Here, there’s more of an acceptance of this subculture of homeless people. I think it’s a tribute in some small cultural way to the community as a whole. I’ve never gotten that sense anywhere else.”
Ultimately, Arreguin said, the city needs to hear from the homeless themselves and treat them as normal members of the body politic. “When the city passed a law last year that criminalizes homelessness, there was no conversation about what the homeless need, and the city didn’t have any input from them. But it can be done,” he said. “We do have a crisis, and all options should be on the table. Berkeley should consider a temporary encampment until we have more permanent housing. People need a place to go.”
Cameron added, “They should have a place, a park, some sort of a space where people can set up tents, and live peacefully, with porta potties and showers and trash pickup, and that’s organized. We need a place for people to be human — eat, sleep, utilize restrooms. That need doesn’t stop because of a law.”
And, warned Lee, “Homeless people can vote.”