Early in the morning on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, BART police forcibly evicted a community of homeless people at the First They Came for the Homeless encampment off Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Adeline St., on the west side of the BART tracks straddling the border between Oakland and Berkeley.
One day later, BART fenced off the iconic artwork that adorns the site — the HERE/THERE sign — obstructing its view from the public, in an attempt to keep homeless people from reestablishing an encampment.
Then, in January, crews erected a permanent fence around the HERE/THERE sculpture, sparking outrage from the artist who created it.
“It’s a very Trumpian move by BART,” said Oakland artist Steve Gillman, in an interview. “They’d rather fence off the problem than find a solution. In my opinion, the fence is more intrusive than the encampment was.”
BART posted trespass notices at the encampment on Oct. 21, roughly two weeks after 40-year-old Ariana Ruiz was found dead in a tent on the east side of the BART tracks at the end of 63rd St., in a separate homeless camp unaffiliated with First They Came for the Homeless (FTCFTH). The notices gave both camps, on the east and west side, 72 hours to vacate.
FTCFTH immediately filed for a temporary restraining order against BART and the city of Berkeley in Alameda County Superior Court. Within hours of the original eviction deadline, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup granted the group a week’s stay, although he eventually allowed the eviction to proceed.
By Nov. 4, many of the camp’s residents had already packed up and left, anticipating the eviction. Just like that, a spot that had housed dozens in tents for almost a year was empty.
Despite governing itself by a strict code of conduct, including no squalor, a 9 p.m. noise curfew, and rules against hard drugs and alcohol, the FTCFTH encampment has met with its share of bad press, namely after a sex offender who escaped custody in Washington state was arrested at the camp in January 2017, roughly one year after tents were first pitched at the site. The offender, however, was only discovered and caught because campers helped bring him to justice.
“They raided the east side of the tracks before they hit us,” explained Mike Zint, co-founder of the FTCFTH movement. “They sent in two helicopters to remove a dozen homeless people.”
FTCFTH filed a lawsuit against BART and the city of Berkeley claiming they were being illegally forced out onto the streets. Last week, Judge Alsup allowed portions of the group’s lawsuit against the city to go forward, finding there was sufficient evidence that the group’s First, Fourth, and 14th amendment rights had been violated, but he dismissed the group’s case against BART, reasoning that because the campers had been moved off of BART land, they were no longer involved in a controversy with BART and would instead have to deal with the city.
“I didn’t care about getting money from damages or getting back possessions that were stolen or thrown away,” said Zint. “I just wanted to get the city to stop destroying tent communities with nothing in them but people trying to survive.”
The site where the encampment was located is BART property. It’s also home to the HERE/THERE sculpture — a massive powder-coated steel structures in the shape of the words “HERE” and “THERE” that define the blurred boundary between Oakland, “THERE,” and Berkeley, “HERE.”
The sculpture is a nod to Gertrude Stein’s famous quip about Oakland: “There is no there, there.” While BART has owned the land since 1969, the city of Berkeley is in charge of managing it. About 15 years ago, the city’s Civic Arts Commission issued a request for bids for an art installation on the grassy lawn by the tracks to serve as “a friendly monument to both motorists and pedestrians.”
In Gillman’s artist statement to the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission during negotiations for the art installation, he stated:
I make things to be touched, to walk into, to sit on./They are made for lingering./They tell us something about the place./They speak of people or events or silence./They energize, they quiet.
But no one is lingering near the HERE/THERE sculpture now. On Nov. 5, a day after the eviction, BART installed a temporary chain-link fence around the HERE/THERE sculpture to keep out squatters.
And then on Jan. 20 of this year, workers with Golden Gate Fence installed a permanent, spiked powder-coated iron fence, horseshoeing the east and west side of the BART tracks. The fence divides the HERE/THERE sculpture from pedestrians, motorists, and the homeless, and threatens to puncture any person foolish enough to climb it.
When the FTCFTH first pitched their tents at the HERE/THERE site, they agreed as a group to maintain sight lines at all times of the famous sculpture, which they did until their eviction in November.
Today, obscured by the current chain-link fence, and the new permanent powdered-coated iron fence, the sculpture can barely be seen.
Although Berkeley spends $2 million each year to fund multiple homeless aid programs like the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, the city has been criticized for a lack of initiative in dealing with the homeless and for not providing adequate, affordable housing in the city.
The city has acknowledged it can only house about 270 unsheltered individuals each year — a fraction of the roughly 700 — and increasing — people who have no shelter and no sanitary facilities on any given night in the city.
Members of FTCFTH petitioned the city for months to get access to portable toilets at the HERE/THERE campsite, but were unsuccessful until The Friends of Adeline, a neighborhood support group in South Berkeley, intervened and purchased a portable toilet on behalf of the camp last summer.
“We tried to get the city of Berkeley to respond to the sanitary crisis in the camp, to get sanitary services and dumpster services to the camp,” said Richie Cole-Smith, a founding member of the Friends of Adeline who has lived in South Berkeley since 1949. “The city has never once attempted to install a portable toilet on the site. … People need public bathrooms. It’s a public health concern that affects everyone, not just the homeless…. Some of these are service men, some are mentally and physically ill. They need care. They need support. They’re human beings.”
Gillman said he learned of the plans for the new fence’s construction while on vacation in Hawaii. FTCFTH members had spotted workers painting construction lines and staking out the land and emailed Gillman.
He returned to the East Bay and then showed up to vent his anger at the Jan. 23 Berkeley City Council Meeting. “Putting a fence around [HERE/THERE] negates what the city requested,” Gillman told councilmembers. “It may also be illegal. There’s a California Arts Preservation Act that says art in public places can’t be modified or destroyed, and essentially, that’s what this fence is doing. The sculpture is sitting there — they haven’t destroyed it, but they have destroyed its intent.
“I think that, personally, the city ought to stand up and tell BART that this is unacceptable,” he added. Gillman received an ovation from the entire room after stepping away from the podium.
Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett, a hopeful for the California State Assembly this year, offered a reassurance after Gillman spoke. “Just so you know, we are taking affirmative measures to get the prison-style fence removed from that area,” Bartlett told the room.
BART spokesperson James Allison defended the fencing, saying the agency “acted lawfully” and “in good faith.” He cited safety reasons for erecting the fence.
As of Jan. 29, the entire east side of the BART tracks had been fenced off.