Eleventh-hour donation keeps Second Street homeless shelter alive

The 1231 Second St. winter shelter, housed in an old Public Works building, will be open at least another month. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On the eve of the closure of Berkeley’s winter homeless shelter at 1231 Second St., the city received an anonymous $15,000 donation to keep it running for at least another month.

The shelter, in a city-owned building between Gilman Street and the Albany border, opened Dec. 23 as an emergency measure to protect more of Berkeley’s homeless during an unusually rainy winter. It houses 47 people nightly, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The city also provides a second winter shelter, which rotates between three different locations.

Both winter shelters were scheduled to shutter Saturday, April 15, but a group of regulars had grown to rely on the Second Street facility, which has been at capacity every night since just after it opened. The city did not have funding to keep it operation any longer.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín went on the radio to publicize the situation, and worked with Councilwoman Sophie Hahn to seek out private donations. Just a couple days before the shelter was set to close, someone came forward with a donation covering the entire $15,000 monthly operating cost. Another donor had offered a smaller amount a few days earlier as well, putting the shelter on track for another extension.


The city will continue to pursue funding to keep the shelter open month to month, said Jacquelyn McCormick, an advisor to the mayor.

Alice In Wanderland, 88, has slept at the Second Street shelter every night since just after it opened. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The Second Street staff and residents describe the shelter as an unusual place where a strong community has developed. Many of the same people return to the shelter night after night, fostering a sense of camaraderie, said David Stegman, executive director of the non-profit Dorothy Day House, which operates the winter shelters. Aside from Stegman, all Dorothy Day House staff members, including everyone who works at the Second Street shelter, are homeless or have been in the past.

At Second Street, residents “bring in their issues, so it’s not any easy task, and it’s cramped in,” Stegman said. “But it’s a very trusting, caring place.”

The other night, two people gave up their spots to others who needed them more, which is unheard of, Stegman said.

Carl Jones, who coordinates the shelter’s food program in exchange for a bed there, said there is a level of calmness at Second Street he has not experienced at other shelters.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I know these people, I’ve lived with them. They’re really pulling together and keeping themselves in check,” Jones said.

Hoping to remove some typical barriers to access and get people into beds as quickly as possible, the city did a couple things differently at Second Street. There is storage space, a kennel for dogs and locking bike racks on site. Residents can step outside in the evening so long as they do not leave the property. Some of the new features, like all-day storage, are possible because the shelter is the facility’s sole use. The other winter shelter floated between the North Berkeley Senior Center, the First Presbyterian Church and the Frances Albrier Community Center, which all serve different purposes during the day.

Residents with Mayor Jesse Arreguín after hearing they can stay at the Second Street shelter another month. Photo: Summer Meyer

The Second Street residents get daily meals, usually food that has been donated to the Dorothy Day House, which “reduces behavior issues in half,” Stegman said.

The residents had been scrambling to figure out their next moves as they counted down the days to the closure of the shelter. An 88-year-old former real estate agent, who goes by the name Alice In Wanderland, said she had saved up and bought a car with seats that folded down to become a bed. Homeless for nearly five years, Alice said she had been set to move into subsidized studio a couple years ago, but was disqualified when her social security income increased a bit that same month.

Alice noted that she and her Second Street roommates would have been kicked out just in time for Easter if the donation had not come in.

Arreguín, Hahn and Councilwoman Cheryl Davila dropped by the shelter Friday night to share the news. The room erupted in cheers and tears, Stegman said.

“It was absolutely magical,” he said. “There was just a heartfelt pulse of keeping something alive.” Contributing to the sense of magic, exactly 47 people showed up looking for beds the first night of the extended operation.

“Now we’re looking for more donations to try to fill out a second month,” McCormick said. “We’re asking the community to keep this going until the navigation center is up and running.”

The navigation center, a two-month shelter light on rules and regulations, is one piece of a massive homelessness plan proposed by Hahn and Arreguín, who campaigned on the promise to prioritize addressing homelessness. Large private donations will be critical to the viability of that effort, called the Pathways Program, which includes another new facility, an array of new services and a long-term initiative to house all of Berkeley’s homeless.

The Pathways Program got its first go-ahead from the City Council on April 6. City staff will bring a more detailed plan back to the council at a future meeting.