After half a century, People’s Park in Berkeley is about to enter a new chapter.
The residents of People’s Park are being housed at a nearby motel, the Rodeway Inn, that the City of Berkeley is leasing for 18 months. Residents are provided with a private room, private bathroom, kitchenette, daily meals, laundry, TV, Wi-Fi and more as service providers support them in their journey to permanent housing and connections to jobs.
And when the work to house the residents of People’s Park has concluded, construction will begin on student housing, permanent supportive housing for the homeless, and renewed green space that has been approved for the property.
This historic work to finally house the unsheltered population of People’s Park is the culmination of decades of debate in the community about the future of this storied space.
History was made in People’s Park in 1969, as calls for change reverberated through the air from a lot just three blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus. After the People’s Park conflict subsided, the debate over what to do with the space called People’s Park carried on. And it has persisted to the present day.
In the years since the People’s Park protests, the 2.8-acre park has remained frozen in time and has become a gathering place for our growing unhoused population. Before the pandemic, the campus enforced a no-sleeping rule in the park, but it otherwise operates as a largely ungoverned space. Students tend to avoid the park in part due to the frequency of violent crime and assaults reported there, which residents at the park are often victims of.
The university has made various attempts to develop its property over the years and has failed every time. Changing anything at the park has been a political third rail in the city for decades. But today, a new project is moving forward with the earnest support of the city, including the city council member who represents the park and the UC Berkeley campus community. That’s me.
When I first had the opportunity to review the proposed plans for the People’s Park years ago, I was still a government official student on campus. The promise of a project that would bring needed student housing, permanent supportive housing, and renewed park space to Berkeley was clear.
But I knew then that if the project was not preceded by a robust effort to house the residents of People’s Park, it would be a failure. I have advocated for that since, and that work is happening now.
For years, People’s Park has been a powerful symbol of resistance against government oppression, but today it is a symbol of something else entirely: our failure as a region to respond to the housing crisis.
The time has come to turn the page and tackle these challenges head-on. By immediately sheltering the unhoused community at the park and building the student housing and permanent supportive housing that is so desperately needed in our city, we can do just that.
In the years leading up to the construction of the project, the work has already been underway to support and house the unsheltered residents of the People’s Park. Since 2017, permanent housing solutions have been found for more than a hundred households in and around People’s Park, including a majority of the individuals who were regulars at the park before the pandemic, thanks in large part to the work of the full-time social worker coordinating with residents in the area.
A new sort of history is being made at People’s Park now. Never before, to my knowledge, has a university invested so significantly and directly in addressing homelessness in its host city. This work and the project represent a model for university campuses across the nation and serve as a case study in implementing a “housing first” approach to homeless services.
There is, truly, nothing I am proud of in my time on the council than the work that is happening in partnership between the campus and the city to house the residents of the People’s Park.
I got coffee not long ago with a Berkeley resident, whose name I will do him the courtesy of omitting. He identified himself as one of the original founders of People’s Park, and gave my office a call because he’d read something I had to say about the park in the paper. He wanted to sit down with me. I assumed immediately and naively that, like so many others, he was looking forward to berating me for my naïveté and explaining why the park had to be preserved in its current form. Quite the opposite.
Outside the original Peet’s Coffee at Vine and Walnut, he told me his stories of the formation of the park. He told me about his interactions with Mario Savio, about tackling the fence around the park, and about the reflecting pool he wanted to help dig but that was never finished. He told me about the beautiful vision and the glorious disagreements within this incredible movement of students dreaming of a brighter tomorrow.
And, he told me how his views on the park have evolved, particularly as the housing and homelessness crisis in the Bay Area has been exacerbated. Today, he says, “It’s time to change People’s Park for the better.”
He shared his enthusiasm for the proposal to build student housing and permanent supportive housing at the park, which he sees as the city’s most urgent needs. And he told me that he never shares this with friends. “There are extremists out there,” he warned me. “I should know. I was one! ”
The University of California Regents approved the plans for the People’s Park project in September 2021. Under a major new agreement that my colleagues and I negotiated between the city and the campus, the university agreed to a number of commitments related to supporting the unhoused community in Berkeley, including continuing funding for the social worker that has supported the community at People’s Park, building a new permanent 24/7 public restroom nearby, and providing funding for a daytime drop-in service center near the park for the unhoused population, which just opened on the property of a local church and is being managed by a local nonprofit organization. At our last city council meeting of 2021, my colleagues on the city council unanimously voted to allocate $ 14 million to the permanent supportive housing project at People’s Park, and this spring, we were successfully awarded a multi-million dollar grant we had applied for from the state to support our rehousing efforts at the Rodeway Inn.
Opposition to developing the park is not what it used to be. The majority of students support building student housing and supportive housing at People’s Park, and the resistance to development is principally being led not by idealistic young people, but by a small group of long-time residents, many of them the same crowd who often oppose new housing development in Berkeley.
There is a humanitarian crisis on our streets. I deeply believe that the best way to honor the legacy of the People’s Park is to invest in the resources necessary to turn the tide on that crisis. I am resolute in that vision and will not be deterred.
The project is no longer a hypothetical, not merely a beautiful vision, but a fully funded, tangible development almost ready to break ground. There is a great deal to be done before that day, but lives are already being changed, and the good that will come from this work is already being felt in the community. Rooms at the Rodeway Inn are filling each day with new residents from People’s Park, each of them one giant leap closer to being permanently housed.
My new friend told me, “It’s time to change People’s Park for the better.”
At long last, we will.
Rigel Robinson is a Berkeley City Councilmember. His District 7 encompasses UC Berkeley and People’s Park.