Occupants of a protest camp outside the city of Berkeley’s homeless services intake center in South Berkeley this week criticized the way the city is allocating aid to people on the streets.
Campers have reportedly moved on, as of Friday morning, but the issues they raised remain.
The occupation, organized by a city commissioner as well as the grassroots First They Came for the Homeless group — which had a protest camp outside the downtown Berkeley post office for more than 17 months — set up Monday and planned to stay at least through the weekend to make its point.
According to a Facebook post by one of the organizers, however, there was a city raid Friday morning and the camp is now gone.
A dozen or so protesters set up tents on the sidewalk outside the city’s Coordinated Entry System, run by the Berkeley Food & Housing Project, at 1901 Fairview St. Also known as “The Hub,” the center is just east of Adeline Street and a few blocks from the Ashby BART station.
Protesters have said the center is disorganized, that it’s too difficult to get help and that people are being sent out of the area for housing. They have also said the city should be spending its money differently, and would prefer a place to set up tents or tiny houses rather than the approach the city is currently taking.
“That’s where people are supposed to help people out here and they’re not doing it,” said Daniel McMullan III, a longtime community advocate who has fought for disabled people and others who find themselves on the streets. “You try to go through channels all the way but, if that doesn’t work, the only thing that works after that is publicly embarrassing the agency.”
Earlier this year, the city reorganized its approach to allocating homeless services, including shelter beds and housing vouchers, to emphasize helping those who are most in need and those who have been actually homeless for a year or more. The Berkeley Food & Housing Project won the contract to oversee that effort, which officials say follows a federal mandate about how to determine who receives help, particularly as resources are limited.
Read more about the city’s approach to ending homelessness.
The center has a $1.1 million annual budget for the current fiscal year. Since January, staff say 30 people have gotten hooked up with permanent housing, another eight have gotten vouchers for housing, 15 have been placed into transitional housing, and 54 have been referred to the county’s housing intake process.
There are 183 people on the center’s list of those who have met the criteria for being high need, and more than 70 of those are receiving case management services, said Sharon Hawkins Leyden, director of client services for Berkeley Food & Housing.
“It’s working,” she said. “It’s not working for everyone.”
In addition, she said, a handful of campers went through the intake process this week, and all of them qualified to move forward to the next step and potentially get on track for case management or housing down the line.
McMullan said he got the idea for the protest camp when he saw the difficulty a disabled woman in a wheelchair was having getting a shelter bed in Berkeley recently. She had to sleep on the street for several nights despite the fact that — according to McMullan — beds were available in Berkeley.
McMullan said the woman tried to go through The Hub’s process but was rejected, and ultimately had to go into San Francisco to get a bed.
“Once they tell you ‘no,’ you’re screwed,” McMullan said.
In the past, different agencies with beds in Berkeley were able to allocate those beds as they saw fit. Now, nearly all those beds are allocated through The Hub. The city says the process is working because it means beds can go to those with the highest need: chronically homeless people, and those considered the most vulnerable, including seniors, youth and people with disabilities.
But those familiar with the old system — including some of the service agencies themselves — have been frustrated by the change in philosophy and execution.
“Before, you went to one place and they said there was no room, and you could go somewhere else and have another shot,” said McMullan. “And now that’s all dried up.”
He said the death of a homeless man on the street last month was another reason behind the occupation. That should not be happening in Berkeley, he said.
Out on the sidewalk earlier this week, several camp occupants shared their reasons for the protest.
Mike Zint — co-organizer with Sarah Menefee of First They Came for the Homeless — said the city should prioritize getting homeless people into tents, then into tiny houses, then into affordable housing. He said a sanctioned place for tents — set up and run by community members themselves —would be well-run with “reasonable rules,” and would be drug- and alcohol-free.
He said Oakland is already doing that, on Magnolia Street, and that other cities have had success with that approach.
“We don’t need care,” he said. “We need to care for ourselves.”
Zint said the campers wanted to put pressure on the city to take those ideas more seriously.
“This is not the solution,” Zint said, of The Hub. “This is a scam.”
Zint said he’s heard reports about problems during intake, and about one person who came to Berkeley by bus for an appointment who was then told he couldn’t be seen due to scheduling problems. Instead of having that money for a meal, or meals, he had wasted it on bus fare, said Zint.
Mike Lee, a homeless man who is running for mayor, said the type of housing that’s been available through The Hub has not been sufficient, including “roommate situations” and housing in places such as Stockton or even farther afield.
“It’s much cheaper to give people a bus ticket,” he said, than to serve them in Berkeley.
Campers also said they don’t appreciate being called “customers” — a designation used at The Hub — and don’t think it’s right that the lobby bathroom isn’t open to the public. (Staff said the facility is not a public building and that only those with appointments can use the restroom.)
“I’m not here as a consumer,” Zint said. “I’m here as somebody who needs help. I’m a homeless man who needs help.”
Campers also criticized The Hub’s South Berkeley location and said it feels like the city is trying to push the homeless out of downtown, and shuffle them out of town altogether.
Leyden said the criticism has been frustrating because the city’s approach has, in fact, been working. Just last week, she said, seven people were housed, and more and more landlords are making units available as relationships with The Hub are built. She said six complaints had come in from neighbors about the occupation — The Hub is located on a residential street — whereas there had been no complaints prior to the protest camp.
Leyden said The Hub has continued to direct clients to other service agencies in Berkeley, such as Options Recovery — now at full capacity, she said — and the Homeless Action Center. Those who come into The Hub are also being referred to job training through Rubicon Programs in Berkeley. All the shelter beds are full every night, she added, saying criticisms that resources are going unused are just not true.
(There are about 120 shelter beds in Berkeley that are allocated through The Hub, as well as another dozen or so beds through YEAH!, a shelter program for homeless youth.)
Leyden said the main challenge continues to be finding enough housing to go around, but says The Hub will continue to work to get people off the streets. For some, that may mean roommate situations, and for others it may mean being willing to leave Berkeley. Some people have been placed as far away as Sacramento, she noted, though they continue to receive case management services once they are connected with The Hub.
“There’s slim pickings for housing, but there are pickings,” she said.
Berkeley seeks to house those most in need at The Hub (06.29.16)
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