The East Berkeley Neighborhood Association (EBNA) kicked off the fall civic season in the South End from behind a computer screen, with public meetings still being held online due to COVID-19 restrictions.
At the top of the list for the meeting was discussions about Peters Park, and the major issues that have played out with drug use and homeless people living in the park over the summer. Several residents had been critical of the City’s response and Pine Street’s outreach in the Park, but on Tuesday night neighbors said there has been great improvement since August.
President Ken Smith said there have been some issues in the park this summer due to the closure of a lot of services and day programs, but most see a big improvement lately.
“There has been a lot of issues with individuals who are homeless living in Peters Park,” said Smith. “Spending part of the day there is fine; they have the same rights as anyone else…But they can’t live there and do drugs there…The confluence of many issues has led to this. We have noticed a big decrease in sleeping overnight on the basketball court and baseball diamond. A lot of that has been minimized.”
City officials, following a couple of walk-throughs with Councilor Ed Flynn, asked Pine Street Inn to step in for outreach in Peters Park. However, many felt like the outreach wasn’t consistent, and may be making it a destination. That seemed to change over the last few weeks.
“We don’t want people living in the Park,” said Aimee Coolidge of Pine Street. “That’s not a dignified way to live and Pine Street is all about getting people housed.”
Pine Street’s Ed Cameron introduced himself, saying he had worked at Pine Street in the 1980s, and then returned last year. He said they send out two outreach vans every night and encounter about 130 people citywide. Normally, they wouldn’t concentrate so much on Peters Park, but now they have been, he said.
“We did start paying more attention to Peters Park,” he said. “I know there was a flare up there a year ago. Then this July and August we as a staff got more involved. We were seeing about 20 people there and we knew 15 or so. Some of them we saw in the day and they were in shelter and we were able to move them to housing.”
He said there is one couple that continued to live in the Park, but have since moved to another area of the South End. He said among all of them, drug use was pretty prevalent.
•Councilor Flynn Appointed to Mass/Cass Task Force
Councilor Ed Flynn appeared at the EBNA meeting, and announced that Mayor Martin Walsh had asked him to be on the Mass/Cass 2.0 Task Force to address quality of life issues.
Flynn has been quite candid about his focus now on quality of life issues in the South End around homelessness and public drug use.
“Make no mistake about it, we have significant quality of life issues in the South End related to the homelessness,” he said, noting that he was asked to be on the Task Force last week.
“The situation on Mass Avenue and Melnea Cass is not getting better,” he continued. “We see drug activity in our neighborhoods. As we know, we can’t arrest our way out of the problem and our homeless outreach workers are doing a great job. I’m not going to be able to solve the issues at Mass Avenue, but I can respond to calls and get things done.”
Councilor Flynn also previewed a hearing he intends to have on infrastructure, focusing on the issues that caused a major water break on Harrison Avenue in the spring and the issues of private sewers in the South End.
“If the issues of infrastructure and rodent control don’t work for you, then nothing works for you,” he said. “Quality of life issues are essential.”
•Michlewitz Tells of Major Budget Gap
When State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz landed the chairmanship of the Ways & Means Committee two years ago, it was a coup to be in charge of a budget that was flush with cash and a prosperous economy.
Now it’s all a different story, and he related that to EBNA neighbors, noting that there is potentially a $6 billion budget shortfall (out of about $29 billion in discretionary spending) that has to be dealt with by October.
“Getting the Ways & Means Chair, at first it was a great job to have because we had an economic expansion and now it’s the worst job in the state,” he said. “We’re looking at a $5 to $6 billion cut we would have to make and that’s 20 percent of the State Budget. That will be dramatic and painful to cities and towns and services we all rely on. We are concerned about that and are waiting to see…with the hope we’ll get some federal bailout…A $6 billion gap is significant. We have $3.5 billion in the Rainy Day Fund and that’s one of the top in the country, but that won’t cover it and we can’t use it all in one year.”
He said the only way to solve this issue, absent a federal bailout, is by cutting services, using the Rainy Day Fund, or raising taxes. Those will be uncomfortable discussions, he said, but they are likely coming.