SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The city of Berkeley, California, says it lacks the resources needed to house most of its 1,000 homeless residents this winter, despite a court order that it submit a full shelter plan.
"I'm very disappointed with what the city of Berkeley filed," said attorney Dan Siegel, representing a group of homeless people who sued the city last month to block their eviction from a South Berkeley encampment.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup denied the group's motion for an injunction in October, but he ordered Berkeley to present a plan by Nov. 28 to "shelter substantially" all of its 974 homeless residents.
In a 17-page declaration filed Tuesday, Berkeley said it can only house 268 individuals, or about 40 percent of the estimated 664 people who have no shelter on any given night.
Achieving that goal will cost $1.18 million, nearly a third of the city's $3.9 million annual budget for homeless services, according to the city.
But despite its lack of available shelter beds, the city remains "reluctant" to authorize tent encampments because "they distract limited resources, staff time, and nonprofit capacity from the ultimate goal: actually ending people's homelessness by getting them houses."
Siegel said the city's declaration seemed designed to "confuse the court and the public" by raising legal objections, funding concerns and policy differences, instead of doing what the court asked – submitting a feasible plan to shelter homeless residents.
Critics say if the city can't provide shelter beds for those living on the street, it should stop criminalizing people for sleeping in cars or tents.
"There's not enough shelter beds so you're on your own," said Mike Zint, who spent three years living on the streets in Berkeley before he found housing in Oakland. "Once you get a tent, you don't get warm, but you're out of the wind and you're dry. You're always a little bit cold and a little damp, but it's a lot better in a tent than in a doorway."
Zint co-founded First They Came For the Homeless, a group that organized three drug-and-alcohol-free tent camps in Berkeley, including one that was removed by the city and Bay Area Rapid Transit police earlier this month.
In an alternate proposal submitted to the court, the plaintiffs say Berkeley should dedicate space on city properties, such as parking lots, for people to sleep overnight in cars and tents. They've also asked the city to provide garbage pick-up, port-a-potties, and hand-washing stations on those sites.
The city, however, says state and local laws prevent it from providing homeless services or setting up camps in city parks, the Berkeley Marina and other city-owned waterfront properties.
For long-term solutions, Berkeley says it is working to build an 89-unit affordable-housing complex, create a 50-bed shelter with modular buildings, and establish a community of "tiny homes" in an industrial area of West Berkeley.
Zint criticized the city's proposal to build temporary housing on a narrow strip of gravel near "a noisy, toxic asphalt plant" in West Berkeley. He said the city's original design for that area looked like a "concentration camp," and noted the city won't commit to hiring homeless residents – who need jobs – to staff the guard shack there.
Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko said the city devotes significant resources to assist its homeless residents, including employing 30 mental health clinicians and housing about 260 people in shelter plus care programs.
"No city in the Bay Area houses all of its homeless," Chakko said. "Though this is a regional and national issue, the city of Berkeley goes to great lengths to help those in need find and stay in housing. Our winter shelter capacity last year was double what it had been in previous years. As mentioned in the filing, we have a number of projects in development to do even more to help house people who are homeless."
Representing the plaintiffs, Siegel offered a series of proposals for the city to do more for its homeless residents. He said the city could take possession of tax-defaulted properties and use them for housing. The civil rights attorney and former Oakland mayoral candidate also urged the city to replicate Salt Lake City's model of connecting temporary shelter and permanent housing with addiction treatment, mental health, education and job placement services.
"For the moment, we are awaiting the judge's action," Siegel said. "We want him to consider our proposal and do something about it."
A hearing on Berkeley's motion to dismiss the homeless plaintiffs' lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 28 in San Francisco.