Berkeley homeless encampment evicted following fire

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City officials on Tuesday morning evicted people living in a homeless camp in front of the old Berkeley City Hall after a small fire Tuesday prompted a city crackdown. 

At 5 a.m. about 25 police officers and a couple dozen workers with the city Parks Department went tent-to-tent to tell the residents they needed to leave. Some of the officers had video cameras to record the eviction. Police said they've counted 39 pop-up tents and structures. Residents have been complaining about health violations from this camp, in addition to the fire.

During the sweep, Martin Luther King Jr. Way between Allston Way and Center Street was closed for two hours.

Several Berkeley residents came out to support the homeless, saying that they feel lucky to live in a home and want to support those who don't.

Many of the homeless were obviously upset. 

"I'm livid, are you kidding me ? This is ridiculous," was the reaction of one camp leader, Crystal McKinney, who everyone calls Mama.

McKinney is known for her sobriety efforts among the homeless, helping them kick drugs and alcohol.

"Today, I saw a 70-year-old man cry like a baby, because he does not want to leave my side," said McKinney.

People who "graduate" from her cluster of tents move to a larger encampment, just steps away, but also very structured. 

"So this is one incident, being used to attack a whole bunch of people who had nothing to do with it," said Mike Zint, founder of the larger camp and advocacy organization known as "First They Came for the Homeless."  

The incident was a tent fire on the front landing of the building, which is still used for city council meetings. 

"The people here really need to leave as soon as they can," said City of Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko. 

A camper was arrested within hours of the fire, for causing it, and also for drug and parole violations.  

But from the city's standpoint, the fire was the last straw.  

"We've also had complaints about other health and safety concerns" said Chakko, "such as garbage and human waste, and of course, fires and open flames are a significant concern for us."    

Chakko also notes an earlier fire, although current campers say that one was an accident, lit by a candle, and occurred long before their camps were established.   

Many of the current dwellers migrated to Martin Luther King Blvd. in November when they were forced off Bart-owned property on the Berkeley-Oakland border.   

Camp defenders say the man arrested wasn't part of their group, but that their members rushed to report the fire, beat it down, and cleaned up the mess. 

"Targeting the homeless and demonizing the homeless based on the actions of one or two homeless is something that all cities do,"  said Zint, "and they use that as an excuse to get the homeless out of town."   

Wednesday evening, with some residents packing and preparing to vacate, a Berkeley council member stopped by to show support. 

"It's sad because where are they going to go?," mused councilwoman Cheryl Davila. 

"This is a model encampment, and people have come to the council and testified how they've helped them transition into homes and jobs." 

For Crystal McKinney, whose camp goes by the name "Dare 2 Change," the eviction threatens the recovery of people she is working with. 

"I'm going to help you where you are right now, and show you the light at the end of the tunnel," she said, "by showing you what it is like to be part of something." 

A recent success story: a 27 year old man who was able to kick a 4 year heroin addiction, he says, because "mama" befriended him. 

"I used to spend my day begging and using, and it was a sad thing, and she picked me up off the sidewalk when no one would come near me," recalled Johnny Shaw. 

As for moving on?

"I'd try to maintain this change I've made while moving around street corners, but not to be negative, I know how long that would last, it would dissolve very quickly," Shaw said. 

Notifications to leave the property immediately are posted around the camps.

They do not specify a deadline. 

Chakko says in a sweep, outreach workers will be on hand to help people get into services should they choose. 

Homeless advocates are also on stand-by to come and help carry away tents and other belongings so they are not discarded by authorities.