The city of Berkeley is taking an emergency approach to homelessness aimed at working fast to bring unhoused individuals inside, particularly as winter conditions worsen.
The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night in support of an “emergency operations center,” or EOC, which authorizes city staff to get all hands on deck to focus on shelter. Adding shelter beds, increasing hours for warming centers, improving medical access, reaching out to partner agencies and spreading the word to people on the streets will all be part of the new effort.
The EOC went into action Wednesday morning, according to a memo from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley to the City Council. Capacity in the city’s emergency storm shelters has been doubled, to 130 beds, for Wednesday and Thursday nights, when winter storms are expected.
Williams-Ridley suggested the EOC approach after hours of public comment and council discussion that became convoluted as council members, three of whom are new, tried to make sense of two competing but overlapping proposals, from new Mayor Jesse Arreguín and from Councilman Kriss Worthington. Arreguín has said tackling homelessness is his No. 1 priority as mayor.
The EOC idea arose following a bold suggestion from new South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett to appoint a czar to act now on homelessness.
Councilwoman Lori Droste, who sits next to Bartlett on the dais, recalled how he had leaned over to her during the lengthy discussion and said: “We need a homeless czar.”
“And I said, ‘Go for it,'” Droste said Wednesday. “Ben really was amazing in sort of synthesizing this information and figuring out the best way to move forward. He did a great job in making sure we’re addressing this issue quickly.”
In response to a multi-page proposal from Mayor Arreguín, described as “Emergency Measures to Address Homeless Crisis,” city officials took a more measured approach, voting to send the bulk of his ideas to an ad hoc committee for consideration and making slight tweaks to a city ordinance on sidewalk regulations that won’t make much difference in the short-term.
In his handwritten recasting of the mayor’s proposal, Worthington said he wanted the city “to address the immediate crisis on our streets” … and ask the city manager to “explore emergency solutions” like increasing the capacity of emergency storm shelters, increasing the number of nights storm shelters and warming centers are open, expanding the number of detox beds and creating “navigation centers,” which have been used elsewhere to provide services.
Bartlett said Wednesday that the czar idea struck him when the word “immediate” jumped out at him from Worthington’s proposal.
“The problem is immediate. We need an immediate solution,” he said Wednesday. “We need to empower an individual to execute solutions rapidly and get these people out of the wet and cold and into somewhere dry and warm, and then on their feet.”
On Tuesday night, just before council unanimously voted in favor of an EOC, Bartlett noted, “The czar will not be evaluating. The czar will be executing.”
That so-called “czar” — though she won’t have that title — will be Williams-Ridley, said Matthai Chakko, city spokesman, after the meeting. He described the EOC as a coordinated approach to staffing and resources that will likely add shelter beds and expand hours for warming centers, reach out to partner agencies and find other city buildings that could be used to get more people inside. The city could also open storm shelters and emergency shelters as part of the approach.
“That means other work has to be put aside because this really becomes the priority,” Chakko said. “Getting people into housing and getting people into shelter has always been our goal. This gives us some additional clarity to come up with some strategies to make that happen.”
The EOC structure is often used during natural disasters to provide a singular focus to getting work done fast. Williams-Ridley said Tuesday night that it’s always helpful for staff to practice using an EOC, so that will be an added benefit to using the approach now.
Earlier this year, the city used an EOC to find a rapid solution after its mental-health clinic became infested with fleas. The EOC was in place for 2.5 weeks, said Chakko, and costs were almost entirely comprised of staff time.
Chakko said staff will continue to follow existing city policy as far as enforcement of city codes about lodging on public property. Violations of that code have prompted what activists and advocates for the homeless have described as recent raids on protest camps set up to question how the city handles homeless services now.
Many members of the public repeatedly called Tuesday night for a moratorium on those raids. New West Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila said she’d like to see an end to them as well: “This is the holidays. It is peace and love. We need to at least consider that.”
Ultimately, however, council took no action on her suggestion.
Arreguín’s proposals will now go to an “ad hoc subcommittee” made up of himself and council members Sophie Hahn, Cheryl Davila and Linda Maio. The group is expected to look at “addressing unregulated camping throughout Berkeley” and explore whether to designate one location for “a regulated encampment.” The group plans to look at how to craft a formal city policy about the removal of encampments, and how the city enforces rules related to lodging on public property.
Initially, Arreguín wanted the group to come back Jan. 24 with ideas, but council removed that deadline because of the creation of the EOC. Councilwoman Hahn also expressed concern about scheduling into January given the holidays and council recess. The next council meeting is not scheduled until Jan. 24.
Officials voted unanimously on the decision to send the proposals to the ad hoc group. But Councilwoman Susan Wengraf noted that she was “a little bit disappointed” that the group was not “more diverse in terms of political bent.” Wengraf, Maio and Droste now appear to make up the new council minority of more centrist votes, while Arreguín, Worthington, Hahn, Davila and Bartlett appear, thus far, to be further to the left.
Council also was unified in its vote to amend its sidewalk regulation ordinance — as per Arreguín’s item — and have the city look into a storage program with multiple sites overseen by existing service providers in the city. The city had been looking at creating its own storage locker program, but had run into opposition from neighbors and trouble finding a good location. Arreguín said he’d like to find a way for the program to cost less.
(Originally, council was supposed to vote Tuesday night to approve a $185,000 contract with Options Recovery Services to oversee that program at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. But the city manager pulled the items off the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Some of the money allocated for the storage lockers could now potentially be used as part of the EOC to increase shelter resources in Berkeley.)
The tweaks to the city ordinance involved simply removing two references to the storage locker program from the city code related to sidewalk regulations. (Council did not address the most controversial piece of that law, which they previously said would ultimately limit the storage of possessions on sidewalks to a 2-by-2-foot area.) The updated ordinance will come back for its second reading — required before changes are final — on Jan. 24. Council is awaiting a report from the city traffic engineer, which is expected to prompt further discussion on sidewalk regulations in the new year.
In its final vote of the night, after multiple extensions that pushed the meeting until nearly 1 a.m., council was divided about whether to allocate $25,000 to Youth Spirit Artworks’ program for homeless students and about $5,700 to the Berkeley Drop-In Center.
The council majority and several members of the public said the money simply restores cuts to the organizations that council had previously voted to make.
Other officials and representatives from local non-profits said they would rather either wait to make any budget decisions during the city’s regular process, in the interest of fairness and transparency, or have the money go toward shelter itself.
For those reasons, council members Droste, Wengraf and Maio abstained during the vote about allocating the money to YSA and the Drop-In Center, but they were in the minority and failed to block the allocation. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly said they voted against the allocation.)
Many members of the public attended Tuesday night’s meeting to ask the city for a compassionate approach to unhoused individuals and their camps, and many of those attendees expressed frustration with the actions council took, saying none of it went far enough to address the immediate needs or ensure there won’t be enforcement against campers going forward.
Concerns also were raised about how the city handles property confiscated during police enforcement actions, and the impact of those “raids” on individuals who are already downtrodden and struggling with health problems and disabilities.
See Berkeleyside’s Twitter feed for live tweets from the meeting to hear more concerns from the community.
Civil-rights groups sue Caltrans over homeless raids (12.14.16)
New mayor aims to overturn key part of homeless law (12.08.16)
City clears out encampment after feces found (12.02.16)
Homeless encampment moved from Civic Center steps to corner across from BHS (11.07.16)
Police roust Berkeley homeless encampment; activists vow to return (11.04.16)
Protesters criticize Berkeley homeless services center (10.07.16)
Berkeley imposes new laws on homeless behavior (11.18.15)
Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.