Published Sunday, December 9, 2001,
Contra Costa Times
KAREN HERSHENSON: TIMES
HEY, WHATEVER happened
to goodwill toward men? It's the flip side of seasonal kindness in
Richmond, where city leaders are putting the squeeze on homeless people.
Yup, temperatures are plummeting and unemployment soaring, but the
not-so wise men and women on the City Council are forging ahead with an
ordinance that makes it illegal to be just about anywhere in public with
a sleeping bag, even a piece of cardboard for shelter.
"Basically, it criminalizes being homeless," says Councilwoman Maria
Viramontes, an opponent.
The anti-camping ordinance squeaked through on a preliminary vote Nov.
27 without so much as a peep from the community -- even diehard homeless
advocates were blindsided. It's up for a second and final vote on
Tuesday, so if you care, get yourself to Richmond City Hall, 7 p.m.
True, the city has large numbers of homeless people who cluster along
the waterfront near Costco, even in the parking lots of swanky Marina
Bay. But with the recession deepening, it's time to step back and
address this growing crisis instead of simply making it illegal to bed
down in public.
The numbers are shocking: An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 without homes in
the Bay Area, according to hands-on workers. Shelters are overflowing,
including Richmond's 75-bed Brookside, which currently has a waiting
list of 218. The 16-bed Family Crisis Center in Livermore was forced to
close just last month because funding evaporated.
So where are these people supposed to go? The North Pole, perhaps, with
Santa and the elves?
Now's the time when agencies typically nail down emergency housing, and
residents dig deep in a burst of holiday generosity. One advocate calls
it the High Holy Season for the homeless.
But with jobs disappearing and Sept. 11 funds getting the lion's share
of donations, nonprofits are hurting, including those that serve this
"Here it's Christmas. Usually this time of year we're talking about
winter relief programs," says Viramontes. "But in Richmond, we're
talking about making it a crime to have a sleeping bag."
Which is ironic, because Contra Costa County has been doling out
sleeping bags to the dozens they're unable to shelter, she says. "If
they're willing to freeze to death outside, they wouldn't be breaking
The city is planning a Homeless Summit in January, with experts and
non-experts alike invited to brainstorm about the issue and offer
solutions. Why not wait until then to begin implementing measures, says
Viramontes. Makes sense to me.
Homelessness has deep, far-reaching roots, not just in poverty, but
mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Many in
this swelling population are women with children. Busting folks for
living in their cars or on the street won't make it go away.
Ordinance backers insist they're responding to persistent complaints
about raggedy vehicles in neighborhoods and bushes used as bathrooms.
Councilman Tom Butt says it's meant to "plug the gap" in the city's
ability to deal with these problems.
(And thanks to Butt for returning calls. Mayor Irma Anderson, a public
health nurse, wasn't so kind.)
He points to an exception in the ordinance for those who show need, such
as a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. And he's confident the
council will come up with the cash to add 24 beds to Brookside.
"We're really trying to find a middle ground here," he says. "It's not
like somebody decided, 'Hey, it's December, Christmas is right around
the corner ... let's see how mean and evil we can be."
But even the most positive spin makes this a case of excruciatingly bad
timing. Scrooge would be proud.
Karen Hershenson writes about life and issues in the East Bay. She can
be reached at 925-943-8252 or