People’s Park and the Persistence of Homelessness

The historic People’s Park was built by the Berkeley community, after the abandonment of a UC Berkeley project to use the area for additional housing during the late 1960’s. For the decades since, the site has been at the center of heated debate. In 2019, the University of California once again decided to purchase the land, employing police officers to forcefully remove the people living there. Lawsuits are ongoing and controversy fills the air as students walk themselves to school. UC Students will inevitably interact more frequently with homeless people as they are displaced and pushed out by the construction at People’s Park. So why is there such a persistence of homelessness in the SF Bay Area? What policies could be implemented to improve the quality of life among unhoused populations? What is the impact of media on the homeless community?  

History of Homelessness in the SF Bay Area

Historically, homelessness in the Bay Area wasn’t necessarily due to a lack of available housing. During the 16th and 17th century, concepts of the nuclear home were largely underdeveloped, and it was common for large empty spaces to be used for housing. These common spaces had been historically populated by immigrants, and indigenous groups whose conception of private property was nonexistent. 

Beginning in the late 50s, there was a governmental shift to acquire these public lands by means of eminent domain for redevelopment. This redevelopment consisted of selling the land to developers for profit. Dr. Niccolò Caldararo from the San Francisco State University describes the situation, saying, “[San Francisco] passed a law in ‘47 for redevelopment using eminent domain … They made it legal by saying ‘we are taking the property from this private person but we are giving it to a private-public corporation, so it’s public, and then they would sell it to another private person, sort of like money laundering which is basically what it was.”

“Redevelopment was a means of providing tremendous amounts of money to city budgets in the 50s, 60s, and into the 70s, with the promise that they were going to revitalize these areas… Shelley as mayor and many other big city mayors were at that time [the 60’s] being offered huge amounts of money from the federal government through redevelopment and so they would designate whole parts of the city as blighted and began evicting people,” says Dr. Caldararo. As evictions increased, so did homelessness, especially for those marginalized communities of color whose neighborhoods were determined as needing ‘revitalization.’ The neoliberalist policies of the 80s, associated with the Reagan and Clinton administrations, worsened the issue. These policies radically cut welfare and the social programs that provided affordable housing, education and healthcare. As affording things like rent became more difficult, at-risk populations (consisting primarily of BIPOC people) were more likely to become unhoused. 

Dr. Caldararo explains that “there’s no political will to have a housing policy for poor people or for working people… you want the poor to be poor because then they will work for less…”

Dr. Dorothy Kidd at the San Francisco State University similarly explains that “unless it’s going to make profit for developers, under the these conditions of financial capitalism —which means a high return on the dollar and now we have a high interest rate— [affordable housing] is not going to happen and that’s still the structural problem.”

According to a 2019 study, “from 1999 to 2014, the Bay Area permitted the construction of 61,000 fewer very-low-income affordable-housing units than recommended by the state…because of units being permanently withdrawn from the protection of rent control.” With a large demand for affordable housing, and the reality of a low supply of housing available, it is no surprise that,“two-thirds of low-income households were in rentals they struggled to afford.” 

With the majority of low-income households struggling to afford rent, precarious environmental situations such as medical debt, rent debts, and court-imposed fines (which disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities), all contribute to rising homelessness. And in California homelessness is getting worse, with the SF Chronicle reporting that in some counties homelessness has increased by over 69% in the last 3 years.

Current SF Bay Area policies for reducing the housing crisis rely on engaging private and philanthropic capital. Following the pandemic, SF county specifically enacted a plan to purchase more housing units, expand access to shelters, and place homeless individuals in permanent housing programs. So far, SF has exceeded their goals, but many are still skeptical. 

Low maintenance of these facilities make them unsuitable for elderly individuals, and do not accommodate entire families. Dr. Kidd explains how, “shelters only accommodate certain kinds of people… there are a lot of families who are unhoused and shelters are not for them… there are alot of people who for whatever reason don’t want to stay in a shelter, or they’ll stay when it’s an emergency but it’s not a long term solution.” Rules created by shelters are also at times unmanageable, often forcing inhabitants to be back by a particular hour. The consequence of missing curfew is simply being locked out, resulting in people having to sleep on the street anyways. This is the case for UC Berkeley’s temporary housing solution for the residents of the historic People’s Park, with curfew at 11pm.  

So how can you get involved?

Dr. Kidd’s paper on the influence of media on poor communities suggests that local counter-public spheres of media allow for the articulation of rights and the growth of infrastructure, which helps legitimize unhoused people’s claims in court cases. But older forms of this counter-public media like the Street Spirit (a Berkeley newspaper run by unhoused people, for unhoused people) are going out of fashion. Kidd explains that “it’s not aging out, but it’s aging, and so they haven’t been able to… get out there and get new people involved.” And while online media allows virtually anyone to share their opinions, it is quite diffuse. “Poor people can produce reports but it’s really really hard for those reports to have any traction, and then for that to have traction with policy makers” says Kidd. 

Local activist and artist Roosevelt (Rosey) Stevens, who taught art classes at People’s Park for over 27 years says “the community’s not like it was back then, there’re a few students trying to make a difference, but not enough. We need more. We need it the way it was back then, but it’s not like back then anymore.” The rise in drug use and violent crime in People’s Park is noticeable, but the public seems to attribute this with individual flaws, rather than structural issues worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s talked about a lot, but some people pretend they don’t hear it, they don’t want to deal with it,” says Stevens. 

To those looking to get involved, go to the People’s Park Website. At the very least, educate yourself, pick up your local Street Spirit, ask your friends to form opinions about homelessness, talk to local politicians, and use your voice.