‘System change’ as Berkeley works to focus homeless money on housing

The city of Berkeley has been trying to focus its resources for homelessness on people who actually sleep outside on a regular basis. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Over the last two years, the city of Berkeley has been moving from an emergency services approach to homelessness to one focused on getting people into long-term housing. It’s helped 57 chronically homeless individuals get off the streets.

Tuesday night, director Paul Buddenhagen and manager Kristen Lee from the city’s Housing and Community Services department, along with Kathie Barkow of Aspire Consulting, gave the Berkeley City Council a snapshot of the city’s shifting approach to what it hopes will one day end homelessness in the community.

The “system change,” staff says, has allowed the city to focus more on the highest-need population: people who have lived on Berkeley streets for at least a year and have one or more disabilities. (In San Francisco, the bar is much higher: People need to have been on the street for 13 years to qualify as chronically homeless.) Though some have vociferously criticized Berkeley’s efforts over the past six months or so, few complaints were raised Tuesday night.

“You’re ethical warriors and you represent us quite well because that is the core of our mission in this city,” Councilman Ben Bartlett told staff. Other city officials shared similar praise in response to the presentation as well.


The last official estimate, in 2015, put Berkeley’s “literally homeless” population at about 840; new numbers are expected in June following a recent count.

Last year, working with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, the city launched “The Hub” — a “coordinated entry” system — to streamline who gets the most robust services first. That shift came in response to a federal mandate to direct resources to those who need the most help. Berkeley got nearly $5 million from the U.S. Housing & Urban Development department in 2016. Overall, the city spends more than $17 million each year, from federal, state and local sources, on “a comprehensive constellation of services to help homeless people lead better lives.”

HUD money in Berkeley: The city got nearly $5 million in 2016. Source: City of Berkeley

According to data collected last year, The Hub tallied more than 7,000 contacts, and screened nearly 1,700 people. Of those, almost 1,000 qualified as chronically homeless. About 270 people with Berkeley ties ranked as “high needs,” and another 100 or so were high needs but not from Berkeley. The Hub placed 48 people into housing, nearly 400 into other types of shelter, and referred 136 to a county housing program called Home Stretch. Staff noted that, in 2016, out of all the cities in the county, Berkeley had the highest number of referrals to Home Stretch, and the highest number of people housed.

And the process continues, Buddenhagen said: In March alone, another nine people have already been housed through The Hub.

In 2014-15, the city focused 57% of its money on things like drop-in services and other emergency needs. It had “low investment” — just 16% — in permanent solutions like housing, staff said. And that limited the city’s ability to get people off the streets. From 2011 to 2014, Berkeley had a 23% placement rate from shelters into permanent homes, compared to 32% at the county level.


After shifting to the new model, close to 70% of 2016 funding went toward services designed to help people access housing and stay there, staff said. In other cities around the nation, a prioritization model of who gets the bulk of the help has had significant results, and seen double-digit reductions in the size of certain homeless populations.

Staff gave the Berkeley City Council an update Tuesday about its changing approach to homelessness. Photo: Emilie Raguso

In 2015, 40% of the people getting help through Berkeley shelters did not meet the city’s definition for “literally homeless.” The new system — which has seen a 33% increase in the number of “literally homeless” individuals served — puts the focus on people who are living in parks, doorways and encampments, the city says. It recognizes that there simply isn’t enough money to help everyone. The old system was focused on managing homelessness, director Buddenhagen told council. The new one is working to end it.

That’s not to say the shelter system will go away, but it has a different place in the city’s overall approach, he said.

One person helped under the new system, Buddenhagen told council, was an elderly man named Sam. He’d been living on the street for 10 years, and had been “struggling mightily.” Through The Hub, Sam was placed in an SRO in Oakland, and is now on the list for permanent supportive housing. He’s getting help with mental health needs, and got a new pair of glasses from Berkeley’s Suitcase Clinic so he can see again.

“Sam struggled for 10 years on the streets of Berkeley prior to The Hub because the system wasn’t designed to provide services for Sam,” Buddenhagen said. “He needed support and he got it.”


Now, the city is seeking county funding to become one of five hubs that will work together, along with an overall call center, in an even more coordinated way. Berkeley is working with Albany and Emeryville for its main application, and in collaboration with Oakland to help support homeless families. Buddenhagen said Berkeley should be in a good position for its application because it was “first out of the gate” to create its own comprehensive hub. That funding is set to kick in later this year, and could mean millions of dollars more for Berkeley.

Staff said the city continues to improve the new system and is working to strengthen its partnerships with and among Berkeley service providers. It’s continuing to refine how it assesses need and, as one example, has tweaked the formula so homeless youth have a better shot at getting help. The city is also working to improve its case management services and skills through training and better collaboration.

Staff noted that, of the 57 housing placements so far, only 9% have been in Berkeley due to the city’s high housing costs and limited supply. Many people have been housed in Oakland, though others have been placed as far away as Stockton. On a brighter note, staff said, all clients get calls and visits from outreach workers to help them stay on track.

Buddenhagen said the city is waiting to see what the federal government plans to do in terms of funding going forward, because proposed budget cuts to programs like Shelter Plus Care and Section 8 could put the city in a very tough spot. President Trump has already proposed slashing HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program, which provides important funding to the city.

“We would be in a world of trouble, that’s just a simple fact. We can’t as a jurisdiction make that up,” he said. “We have to just keep watching.”

Council members said they were impressed with the report, and with the work that has been done.

“I feel like we’re doing so much, and that this transition to The Hub system has really helped to figure out exactly what we’re doing for whom,” said Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. “Prior to that, it was a little more confused.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington credited Councilwoman Linda Maio with being the first person, several years ago, to try to bring homeless service providers together to begin a collaboration process that preceded The Hub. And he said Berkeley is lucky to have a mayor — Jesse Arreguín — who has said ending homelessness is the city’s top priority.

Worthington also said he supports the new prioritization model, though the shift hasn’t been easy.

“This is morally good for the poor people who are suffering,” he said. “When we achieve success, it will also be good for the business community and the city of Berkeley. To actually have effective services for people who are homeless will benefit all of us.”

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said what the city really needs to do is go even further: to come up with a plan to address “extreme poverty.” She noted that Berkeley has been said to have the largest wealth gap of any city in California.

“I’m not proud of that level of diversity,” she said. “Having a lot of very poor people in a city that also has a lot of wealth is not something I’m proud of.”

Rendering of the STAIR Center. Photo: Chris Walker/screen shot from proposal

Coming up

In a related consent calendar item Tuesday night, the mayor and several other council members are seeking proposals for ways to convert a small city-owned lot at University Avenue and West Street into housing for the formerly homeless and other low-income residents.

And, next week, council is set to consider a tent-cabin village and pet-friendly shelter as part of an elaborate new proposal to address the city growing homeless population.

Stay tuned for further coverage.