BERKELEY — When a homeless man named "Jackal" challenged the candidates for mayor here last fall to sample life on the streets, Tom Bates accepted.
Now Bates is mayor and, after a night camping in a park behind City Hall, he said he can see much more clearly the plight facing an estimated 1,200 of his constituents.
As for the homeless themselves? They alternately heckled, embraced and confronted Bates during his roughly 24 hours last week rubbing elbows with the common man.
The responses of social service providers were more uniform: They spoke of the need to maintain programs despite the possible $1-million reduction the city says it might have to make in a $13-million budget for the homeless and subsidized housing.
The former assemblyman's night on the town did not begin auspiciously. After zipping into his sleeping bag for a bank of television cameras about 9 p.m., Bates was awakened at 1:40 a.m. by one of his own police officers.
The officer informed Bates and his dozen or so companions that they were breaking a local law by spending the night on public property, and that they would have to move on.
"Looking up from my sleeping bag," a tired Bates said between TV interviews Wednesday morning, "he looked 7 feet tall. I thought it was a dream."
But Bates got only a muted version of what happens many nights in the park. Most of those who try to sleep there don't have a permit, as he did. They must move on and try to find another place to finish sleeping.
Mayor Bates scrunched back into his sleeping bag, only to be rousted again a few hours later by the bright lights of five TV vans. They disgorged reporters eager to report on the event for the morning news.
Bates said Berkeley's effort to tend to the 1,200 people reflects a larger national dilemma, one he hopes to spotlight.
"This country can wage a war in Iraq and cause all kinds of casualties there and pay to rebuild Baghdad," Bates said, "but we need to rebuild people's lives here."
Dressed in worn bluejeans, a green turtleneck and white tennis shoes, the soft-spoken mayor started his day on the streets at 4 p.m. Tuesday with a free meal at Trinity Baptist Church.
Looking on as Bates and 120 others ate stir-fried rice and salad -- with a Popsicle for dessert -- Leanell Austin said she was both skeptical of and impressed by the mayor's tour.
The 60-year-old church caseworker said she was once homeless, and she laughed at the prospect of truly learning anything about living on the streets for just one night.
"If he did it for a week, he'd be cool," Austin said. "It's like me trying to be white for a day: You can't explain it till you experience it." Still, the African American woman declared it a "good thing he comes out to try and see what goes on."
As he walked through Berkeley, touring soup kitchens, shelters and parks, Bates met a mixed reception.
One resident couldn't resist a loud quip about the dozen or so reporters, photographers and camera people following the mayor as he picked up trash on Telegraph Avenue, a magnet for panhandlers and runaways.
"Hey, Mayor Bates," yelled Steve White. "Nobody can help the homeless problem, but thanks for taking care of the TV news shortage."
White, a 45-year-old used-boat salesman, said he remains irked by Bates' action during his November election showdown with Shirley Dean. Bates was caught discarding an estimated 1,000 issues of the UC Berkeley student newspaper, the Daily Californian, which endorsed Dean. Bates at first denied the incident, but later admitted to theft and paid a $100 fine.
After the walking tour, Bates arrived at Martin Luther King Jr. Park to bed down for the night.
Beverly Jollette, a 59-year-old woman who often sleeps in the park, said Bates was welcome, but only because it might mean a peaceful night's rest, thanks to his permit.
"It's hands off the homeless tonight, and that's a blessing," Jollette said, "at least we don't have to get rousted by the cops tonight."
After unrolling his sleeping bag for the nightly news, Bates held court with nearly 40 activists and homeless people, listening to their concerns and warning them about the impending budget cuts.
At the end of the 24 hours, Bates said he had come away from the experience with several ideas to improve the situation in Berkeley.
But the mayor said he would start small.
During his brief sojourn in the park, Bates had encountered a notorious portable bathroom nicknamed McNasty. The filthy, stinking outhouse made an impression.
"I was in the service, and I've seen a lot of nasty toilets," Bates said, "but that thing has gotta go."