New Berkeley Budget Takes Aim at Unhoused Community
This piece was originally published in the August 2021 issue of Street Spirit and can be read online there. Support your local Street Spirit vendors!
The City of Berkeley passed a one-year budget on the evening of Tuesday, June 30. Some will remember a similar evening, one year ago, when hundreds of Berkeley residents logged on to a virtual city council meeting and demanded that Berkeley City Council pass a budget that would defund the police. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder residents called for, and were promised, change. This was meant to be the year that the City of Berkeley would, “(a)spire to reduce the Police Department’s budget by 50 percent,” according to the city’s new Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. Instead we witnessed an increase to the Berkeley Police Department budget, a slew of referrals that will further criminalize the unhoused community, and total misappropriation of funds meant to serve those that are unhoused.
On paper, it might look like this year’s Berkeley Police Department (BPD) budget is only slightly higher than the previous year, clocking in at $73.2 million versus $70.3 for fiscal year 2022. However, looks can be deceiving. Additional funding for the police was hidden throughout this year’s budget.
We are most concerned about the additional funding for BPD that can be found under “re-imagining public safety”—a handful of resolutions that the city council passed last summer meant to reduce the footprint of BPD and ultimately move funds away from BPD and into other, more community-centered, priorities. Instead, without actually decreasing anything, the council used approximately $7 million from already vacant, already deferred, BPD positions and used that money to fund “re-imagining” projects that actually increase police presence in Berkeley. With money for cops on bikes and implicit bias training, it amounts to an additional revenue stream for BPD that is not accounted for within the formal BPD budget.
All in all, the city council took $1.19 million and “re-imagined” it right back into BPD’s budget. The council has also set aside $1 million in anticipation of additional overtime needs. This takes us up to $75.4 million for the current fiscal year. On top of that, BPD exceeds its budget by 6.9 percent annually (an average for the past 6 years). Berkeley residents can easily expect an actual police budget coming in around $78 million. Afterall, BPD managed to spend more than $76.9 million for this past fiscal year—$6.6 million higher than their adopted budget.
Have you ever noticed that throughout the year the city council seems to vote on, and pass, a number of items that never seem to come to fruition? Why is this? What happens to an item that the council passes and “refers to the next budget cycle”? Welcome to the world of “referrals.” If an item (and the Councilmember that proposed it) is lucky, it becomes a “funded referral”- meaning that it will actually receive funding and become actualized in the coming year. Some items are funded right away, some are referred to the budget cycle and receive funding that same year, others languish, unfunded, year after year. This budget cycle the city council reviewed a long list of unfunded referrals and decided which few, out of the many, would actually move forward with funding for the 2022 fiscal year. Here are two newly funded referrals that have us worried:
Equitable Clean Streets – Introduced by Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett in District 3, this referral will provide much needed street and sidewalk cleaning to District 3 and South Berkeley, historically Black areas of Berkeley and chronically underfunded and underserved. The language of the referral speaks of using an “equity lens” to address street cleaning while specifically addressing cleaning schedules for “the surrounding area of encampments [where] the proposed biweekly…cleaning services should focus on cleaning the individual camps as well.” Based on similar “cleaning” operations already in effect in the city, there is high likelihood this will also result in harassment, eviction, and intimidation of the unhoused community. It is beyond time we demand progressive, preventative measures for health, housing, and clean streets.
Establish Parking Benefit District (PBD) in the Adeline Corridor and Gilman District – Introduced initially by Councilmember Bartlett and then joined by Councilmember Kesarwani, this referral would basically increase the number of parking meters in the city to generate revenue for the districts in which they would appear. “Parking benefits districts” are defined geographic areas, often along commercial corridors, where revenue generated from parking facilities is used to finance neighborhood improvements in the district.
While on the surface catering to the needs of Berkeley’s lesser-served neighborhoods, this seemingly mundane idea again has the potential to displace the unhoused community. When meters go up along streets that currently house RV dwellers, those people will be forced to find a new place to park. In addition, the city seems poised to begin enforcement of its 2019 overnight parking ban aimed at RVs once the permitted RV lot opens in September adjacent to the new Horizon Transitional Village.
We can no longer allow the city to “sweep” the unhoused to the edges of town to live alongside the on-ramps. Real solutions are necessary now.In summary, it is shameful that these referrals seemingly pit two marginalized communities against one another. You can want clean, healthy, safe streets in your neighborhood, but do it the way the city proposes, and you’re contributing to the ongoing harassment and eviction of those without permanent housing. Or you may want to prioritize the needs of the unhoused, but to do so within this structure places you in opposition to Black and Brown neighborhoods desperately in need of access to funding and infrastructural support. The reality is that this is one issue. Here in Berkeley, Black and African American residents make up 57 percent of our unhoused community, while accounting for only 8 percent of the general population. As a community we cannot allow our elected officials to recreate those imaginary (red) lines of division. Our community must stand united and demand real equitable access to resources, health, and safety for all Berkeley residents.
Lastly, we ask that everyone take a moment to pay attention to where your tax dollars are going. In 2018, Berkeley residents generously passed Measure P: “An ordinance raising funds for general municipal purposes such as navigation centers, mental health support, rehousing, and other services for the homeless, including homeless seniors and youth.” While the city council is technically following the letter of the law in regards to this tax, the spirit of the law has, in the opinion of Berkeley Copwatch, been egregiously overlooked.
Right now, $2.4 million of Measure P funds are spent annually on a contract with a private ambulance company, Falck, to provide 5150 transport, i.e. ambulance transport for those experiencing a mental health emergency. However, according to the Homeless Services Panel of Experts, a panel created to provide oversight on Measure P allocations, only 40-56 percent of all 5150 calls are for those experiencing homelessness and furthermore recommend that, “no Measure P funds be used to pay for 5150 transports.”
Also funded by Measure P to the tune of nearly $1 million is the Homeless Response Team, a group composed of members of the City Manager’s office, Public Works, and the Berkeley Police Department. Berkeley Copwatch documents this team on a weekly basis. Under the guise of “cleaning,” the HRT harasses members of our unhoused community, taking and destroying personal belongings under the intimidating gaze of two BPD officers. If you are a Berkeley taxpayer, and you voted for Measure P, is this where you thought your tax dollars would go? We were led to believe this money, our money, would go towards providing services for the unhoused, not salaries for cops.
The City of Berkeley will re-evaluate their budget in November, which gives us just over two months to voice our anger and outrage. It also gives us two months to come together. Perhaps as a community we can show the city council that we will no longer accept non-solutions that step on one part of our community to lift up another.
Get active. Be aware. Refuse to be abused.