Ambitious proposal seeks to shake up the way Berkeley handles homelessness

Rendering of the STAIR Center, a proposed “low-barrier,” short-term shelter for homeless people in Berkeley. Photo: Chris Walker/screenshot from proposal

A tent-cabin village and a pet-friendly shelter are both included in an elaborate new proposal to address the growing homeless population in Berkeley. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn unveiled the proposal, set to go before the council on April 4, at a press conference Thursday morning.

Their Pathways Program would direct city staff to spend the rest of the year coming up with a large-scale, long-term plan to house and serve the city’s homeless. In the interim, it would establish a series of temporary housing options and supportive services to immediately assist the chronically homeless.

“The homeless crisis is our most pressing emergency,” Hahn said. The new councilwoman said her conversations on the campaign trail led her to believe “this is a uniquely opportune time to seize the moment and capture the goodwill of the entire community of Berkeley.”

And many members of the community — along with their goodwill and bank accounts — would be tapped to carry out the massive local and regional collaboration described in the proposal, which is co-sponsored by Councilman Kriss Worthington and Councilwoman Linda Maio.


If the plan is passed next month, the first order of business would be the creation of a “low-barrier,” short-term shelter, based on San Francisco’s Navigation Center model. The Center for Stability, Navigation and Respite, or the STAIR Center, would be light on restrictions. Individuals, who could stay at the STAIR Center for up two months, would be permitted to bring pets and store their belongings at the site. Some of Berkeley’s homeless residents cite lack of storage space as a deterrent from staying at shelters, where they say theft is common.

Renderings of the STAIR Center in the proposal show rows of tent cabins with shared outhouses, but the design and details could change significantly, Arreguín said. He said the center is likely to have 50-80 beds. The goal, Arreguín said, is to get it up and running within six months after the plan passes, although no city sites have yet been identified for where it might go.

The STAIR Center is meant to remove unnecessary hurdles “to get people off the streets and into temporary living situations, with the goal of ultimately getting them into permanent housing,” Arreguín said.

In order to identify individuals suited for the center, service workers would “move in” to an existing Berkeley homeless encampment for several weeks, bringing outhouses, collecting garbage and providing information on available facilities and services. They would work on building relationships with those living in the encampments, who could opt in to relocating to the STAIR Center. At the end of this outreach period, the city would enforce anti-encampment laws, Arreguín said.

The proposed models for outreach and shelter draw heavily from programs implemented in San Francisco. At the city’s Navigation Centers, lauded for their ability to connect with the hard-to-reach, individuals can come and go at will, bring partners, pets and belongings, and make use of a range of social services on site. Outreach workers engage in intensive recruitment efforts at encampments in San Francisco too.


Hahn said the approach could disprove the idea that many homeless individuals do not want help.

“What does service-resistant mean?” Hahn said at Thursday’s press conference. “Does that mean that one day an outreach worker approached someone at 8 p.m. and said, ‘We have a shelter bed for you,’ and they looked at their stuff and their pet and what part of town they were in at that moment…and they were deemed to be service-resistant? I think these much more robust intake models are a better offer.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn present their proposal Thursday March 16. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The proposal lays out a couple of “exit” options following a stay at the STAIR Center. For those with family or friends able to provide housing, the city would facilitate reunions through a program like Homeward Bound.

Others could qualify for a spot in a potential new village of tiny homes, called the Bridge Living Community. (No relation to BRIDGE Housing, the organization that has signed on to build a homeless service center and apartments on Berkeley Way.) Initial renderings depict rows of tent cabins with front porches, communal outdoor seating and storage facilities. There would also be a shared kitchen, according to the proposal. Residents would have “some communal responsibilities, and opportunities to engage in activities such as gardening, taking classes, obtaining job training and placement, and connecting with mentors,” the proposal says. A social service agency would manage the complex and residents would be allowed to stay for up to four months.

Rendering of the BRIDGE Living Community, where residents would stay for up to four months. Photo: Chris Walker/screenshot from proposal

If the plan is passed, city staff will have to hash out the specifics of each element of the project — most significantly the location for two new temporary housing complexes in a city where available land is scarce. The city recently evaluated 119 publicly owned parcels with homeless housing in mind and narrowed the ones that looked promising to six, only two of which met all the necessary criteria.


The temporary housing options are meant to provide immediate refuge for some while the city develops a long-term solution to homelessness. The proposal envisions the so-called “1000 Person Plan” — named after an estimated 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley — as a complex collaboration between city agencies, the county, homeless service providers, police, the private sector and UC Berkeley.

But the proposal gives little direction to city staff, simply instructing them to create a “comprehensive, innovative and meaningful 1000 Person Plan” to be presented to the council at the end of 2017, for implementation in 2018. Arreguín said the plan would couple “rapid rehousing” measures like rental assistance and eviction protection resources with new permanent housing and programs.

And the proposal would require a tremendous fundraising effort.

“We have every expectation that this is going to require new funding,” possibly including new bonds and other new funding requiring voter approval in 2018, Hahn said.

The city might need to create a new nonprofit or work with an existing organization to oversee fundraising and volunteers, the proposal says. Other proposed funding sources include private and corporate donations, and a “fund-a-structure” model where individuals and groups sign up to fundraise for specific elements of the plan.


Some philanthropic donors have already expressed interest in supporting the project to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, Hahn said.

If enacted, the Pathways Program would make good on Arreguín’s campaign promises to prioritize homelessness. In June 2016, the then-councilman told Berkeleyside: “Taking a step back and looking at the big picture and developing a comprehensive plan is really needed.”

Mike Zint, of First They Came for the Homeless, sits in a tent on the lawn at City Hall after an encampment was removed from the steps, in Berkeley, on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016. Photo: David Yee ©2016

Berkeley’s homeless population, which is somewhere between 800 and 1,200 people according to different estimates, is growing, exacerbated by the rental housing crisis. Arreguín and Hahn’s proposal assumes a large portion of Berkeley’s homeless population was formerly housed, citing a recent study finding that to be the case in San Francisco. (See Berkeleyside’s homelessness fact sheet.)

The Pathways Program would be the latest, though by far the most ambitious, in a string of efforts to reduce homelessness in Berkeley.

In January 2016 the city opened a one-stop-shop intake center in South Berkeley. The Hub is a central point of entry into the city’s disparate services and shelter options, and manages the first coordinated effort to collect data on homelessness.

In December the city launched an “emergency operations center” and new West Berkeley shelter with storage space and dog kennels, in an effort to ramp up resources during an unusually rainy winter. Last month the council also voted to explore the creation of micro-homes, built by a private developer on public land.

The new program would not replace any existing shelters or services, but hopefully help them work in concert more effectively, Arreguín said.

The city has drawn criticism in the past for moves some say criminalize the homeless. In 2012 a ballot measure that would have fully banned sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts during the day and evening failed. In 2015 the city council made it harder to camp out on the sidewalk during the day by restricting how much space a person could occupy. The new city council made some tweaks to that law.

In recent months, one group of homeless people protesting some of Berkeley’s homelessness policies has been involved in a protracted struggle with the city. The “First They Came for the Homeless” camp has roved around Berkeley, relocating each time the city disbands it. It is currently set up on Adeline Street, at the Berkeley-Oakland border.

Enforcing encampment laws is expensive, Arreguín said. And according to the city, Berkeley currently provides $3.6 million a year to community organizations providing homelessness services.

The mayor said Thursday that the Pathways Program is his and Hahn’s attempt to implement a preventative, “housing-first” approach instead of relying on a cycle of emergency services.