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Homeless for holidays
December 9, 2001
Published Sunday, December 9, 2001, Contra Costa 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 population.

"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 law."

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 khershen@cctimes.com .