Thursday, May 26, 2011

Curing Homelessness, Obnoxious Street Behavior Not Easy, Berkeley Report Says

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group East Bay
Two weeks ago Cory Smith rolled into Berkeley with just his backpack, no place to stay and no job.
With nothing to do and little money, he found himself on a Friday afternoon jingling a can for spare change in front of Jupiter restaurant on Shattuck Avenue.
The 24-year-old hitched his way to town from Eugene, Ore. He found Berkeley simply because it was the last place a driver dropped him.
Three years after the city started a new program aimed to reduce the numbers of homeless like Smith, the mentally ill and the obnoxious petty criminals who inhabit downtown and Telegraph Avenue, a new report says the city has had only mixed results.
The Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, championed by Mayor Tom Bates and passed by the City Council in November 2007, has been successful in getting many older, long-term homeless into housing and drug and mental health counseling, but it has not had much luck in ridding the streets of the younger people who do all sorts of things city officials call "problematic street behavior," city officials say.
Cory Smith, 24, is homeless, jobless and out of money in downtown Berkeley. (Photo by Doug Oakley)
Berkeley added 65 benches to downtown streets in an attempt to make more places for people to sit, yet a new report says the quality of life in the area remains the same three years after the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative was passed by the City Council. (Photo by Doug Oakley)
Berkeley's Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, which spent about $800,000 a year for the last three years, has had mixed success in making the quality of life downtown better. (Photo by Doug Oakley)

The program most likely will have $150,000 cut from its budget of about $800,000 for the next fiscal year, including $94,000 from the Host Ambassador Program which employs recovering addicts to work with people on the street and police, homeless shelters and drug counseling services.
Part of the problem with Berkeley, according to the report, is that there are those of all ages who cause problems -- from harassing people, to urinating and defecating to stealing from businesses -- who are not interested in getting help or sleeping in a clean government-funded bed at night.
"I'm very pleased with some of the results, primarily with the hard-core people who have gotten housing and services," said Mayor Tom Bates. "But we also have a group that comes in everyday from other cities to panhandle and those are hard to serve. There are these youth who don't want any direction or information for services to get off the streets. That's frustrating because they want to continue the lifestyle they have."
Bates added that even though the city may cut some funding from the Host Ambassador plan, a new downtown business organization probably will take up the slack in funding.
The report from the city manager's office said despite some successes with the public commons initiative, ..."there has only been a marginal change, if any, in the overall quality of life in the Telegraph and Downtown areas" since the program started.
Bates however, said he is "definitely" pleased with the three-year-old program "especially considering what we would have without it."
The initiative outlined numerous programs and changes in law in an attempt to clean up the downtown areas including homeless and housing services for youth and adults; the "Host Ambassadors" who do everything from handing out no smoking cards to referring homeless people to shelters; installing benches for people to sit on; making toilets more accessible; starting a reservation service for overnight shelters; starting a social security benefits advocacy center; and discouraging smoking and lying on the sidewalks.
"We've had some successes with particular individuals who were getting arrested a lot, and once we got them stabilized, housed and in services, their arrest rate dropped eight fold," said Jim Hynes, the assistant city manager who wrote the report. "It has worked well for those who were able to get motivated, but there are those who continue to be resistive to offers of housing and services -- and we haven't given up on them."
Hynes said over the last three years the city has identified 27 of the most problematic homeless people and attempted to get them in services. Sixty-three percent of those, or 17, are now in stable housing, Hynes said in the report.
Hynes said the younger homeless kids and young adults on Berkeley's streets are a tough group to reach. They may be at a time in their life where they are not ready to commit to getting help with whatever problems they may have, Hynes said.
"You may make an appointment for them to get some kind of counseling, whatever it may be, but they'll cancel because they've decided to go to a reggae concert," Hynes said.
The Berkeley Host Ambassador Program, which employs three full-time and four part-time people who walk the streets in the downtown and on Telegraph Avenue six days a week, is important to businesses whose leaders recently pleaded with the City Council to keep the funding.
The ambassadors have identified about 350 people who are "involved in problematic street behavior" in the downtown. According to the report the ambassadors have "established a regular presence and cultivated relationships with local businesses who call on them when someone is creating a problem."
The ambassadors have made "thousands of referrals to sources of help" and have worked with over 250 who are showing "visible signs of distress and illness," according to Deborah Badhia, operations director for the Downtown Berkeley Association which oversees the ambassadors.
Still, the program will be reduced in funding because it's not clear it has helped that much, the report said.
"I'm still totally committed to this program," Badhia said. "It's the best strategy our businesses have had to deal with this problem."
Carmen Francois, one of the ambassadors with the program from the start who recently spoke at a City Council meeting asking that funding not be cut, said they have made a big difference over the last three years.
"When we first started, that whole east side of Shattuck from Berkeley Way down to the other end of downtown was homeless people you had to step over, now it's almost clear," Francois said.
"We're helping a lot of people get housed, but there's just this constant influx of people into Berkeley." One of those was Cory Smith, who said he would be open to offers of housing and assistance.
"I'm looking for a job, that's the biggest thing, and housing is next," Smith said. "I'm sleeping outside, but I'd like my own place."
Also being cut from the public commons initiative is $55,000 from a program offering daytime services for homeless youth. That program previously was receiving $100,000 a year from the city.
The program offers a shelter, counseling and links to education employment and housing. But according to the report, "despite the number of youth accessing these daytime services, the program did not have a significant impact on transitioning youth to greater stability."
The Public Commons for Everyone Initiative was paid for with a 25 cent increase in parking meter fees that was supposed to raise $1 million a year for the program, but the bad economy brought in only about $800,000, the report said. Next year's budget is set for $614,000.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at


  1. we don't have to strongarm these guys, but the BPD and services need to counsel and hassle them out of town. Berkeley has a well-deserved reputation as a freak rodeo and the homeless gravitate towards it like moth to a lightbulb. I was on Shattuck, the sidewalks are really unpleasantly designed plus the losers who hassle everyone.

  2. of course the fact that the "ambassadors" are effectively impersonating peace officers by operating without the requisite Ppo#s is overlooked entirely...