Elect Eliot Spitzer Attorney General
November 3, 1998

Fed Up, Berkeley Takes Aim at Homeless Youths


BERKELEY, Calif. -- The young street people were leaning against a store window, watching the police watching them from a second- floor window across the avenue.

"They'll arrest us for anything now," Justin Montgomery, 22, said as he dragged on a cigarette. "They're just waiting for any excuse at all."

"They say we scare people," said Orin Wells, 21, who was sitting on the sidewalk clutching a chubby nine-week-old mixed-breed German shepherd. "Are we scary?"

Whether they are scared or just plain fed up, plenty of people in the nation's most famously liberal city want the youths, panhandlers, drug addicts, drinkers, mentally ill homeless swept off Telegraph Avenue, the shopping district here mentioned in every tourist guide.

Last week, the all-Democratic City Council, which is dominated by a progressive faction, unanimously passed an emergency measure authorizing police overtime to fight the drug dealing and disperse the entrenched camps of the homeless. The police have been all over Telegraph Avenue, in squad cars, on bicycles and in front of businesses.

"They've started turning things around," said Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Books, a hangout that has stood at the most popular gathering spot for the homeless, the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street, for 21 years. "A few days ago," Ross said, "There were 50 people camped out in front of Cody's dealing drugs and menacing my customers."

Store owners started complaining about the youths at least a year ago. In particular, they have complained about the young people who come from all over the country to linger on Telegraph and Haste. The situation is much like that one in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, which is also showing signs of battle fatigue.

Homeless people have congregated here for 30 years, but many locals say the more recent newcomers have more than tested the limits of tolerance with their drinking, drug dealing, defecating, urinating and aggressive panhandling. Not to mention their sheer numbers: 20 to 30 congregate at any one time in one corner, most of them with dogs.

Last week, when one store, Half Price Books, announced it was moving out because of the youths, and five others threatened to do the same, Mayor Shirley Dean, declared that the situation had gone from "severe to critical."

"This used to be a vibrant place," Dean said. "It's not anymore. It's become a menacing place, where hard, hard drugs are dealt, there have been people having sex on the sidewalks, S&M sex on the sidewalk, anti-Semitic graffiti."

Over the last two weeks, before the crackdown, two windows at Cody's Books were smashed, one apparently by a vandal, the other by a young man who was shoved into it in a fight, Ross said. In recent months, business has dropped by 15 percent in the day, he said, 75 percent at night. At night, many of the youths had taken to sleeping along the wall, cocooned in blankets, bodies scattered like bowling pins. In the daytime, they would use the wall as a back rest as they smoked pot and sold drugs.

Now, the people who are still hanging around gather in small, wary clutches.

Homeless advocates question the timing of the crackdown, just before the mayor and half the City Council members are up for re-election. "We really believe this is an election-motivated issue," said Sally Hindman, executive director of the Chaplaincy for the Homeless, which runs a drop-in center for homeless runaway youth a block from Telegraph Avenue. "There is something appealing to people about hearing tough-on-crime talk."

Hindman said the city would be wiser to address the problems of homelessness, rather than criminalize the behavior of the people on the street.

"On any night, there are 1,000 to 1,200 people sleeping on the streets of Berkeley," she said. "Half of them are deinstitutionalized mentally ill people. It's like a mental ward on the streets. Some of them are on drugs. But we have no detox center in Berkeley."

Hindman said the youths, most of them between 18 and 25, tend to come from severely troubled families, and that 21 out of 27 youths the center has counseled have diagnosable mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress. "You talk to them once, they'll say they're traveling," she said. "You start talking to them more, they'll tell you they left because their parents were beating them."

The mayor said she is proposing a plan that involves both increased social services for the homeless youths and "tough love." That includes pushing them off the streets with an anti-encampment ordinance. "I don't think they'll seek services if they don't get a nudge," she said.

Some of the young people have come up with their own plan, which they presented to the City Council last week. They promise that they will stop urinating and sleeping on Telegraph Avenue, panhandle in smaller groups, keep their dogs on leashes and pick up their trash. In return, they have asked the city to provide more trash cans, create a dog run, clean the public bathrooms more often and open Berkeley's first shelter for young people.

The mayor called the plan "interesting."

But on Telegraph and Haste, there were grumblings that the city would never take the plan seriously.

"They're making us out to be devils," Orin Wells said. He said he comes here from British Columbia when the weather gets cold there. "People are getting arrested for selling $10 worth of pot," Wells said. "They're not even the drug dealers. They get $20 worth of pot from the real drug dealers and sell it for a $5 cut, just to eat."

Nearby, a group of homeless people were quietly nodding. Wells shook his head in disgust. "This is Telegraph and Haste," he said. "My parents used to hang out here when they were young. This is a part of history, whether they like it or not."

Elect Eliot Spitzer Attorney General

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