At 6:15 a.m. on Jan. 31, the McDonald’s at the intersection of University and Shattuck avenues in downtown Berkeley was busy. A small line of people stood at the counter to order coffee, Egg McMuffins and other early-morning fare. But the real action was at the tables spread throughout the recently modernized fast-food outlet.
At one table, two men who looked to be in their 20s talked and greeted people as they passed by. One table over, another youngish man in a black plaid coat lay splayed out on a padded bench, fast asleep. His feet jutted out over the bench into the aisle. Not far from him, a young couple, clearly in love, hugged one another closely as they drank from white paper cups.
Most of the 19 people gathered in McDonald’s that early Tuesday morning were homeless. And this reporter had come there with two others to count them as part of Alameda County’s 2017 homeless Point-in-Time census and survey. The homeless count, conducted every two years, is required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and determines the amount of money the government hands out for homeless services. Berkeley currently receives about $4.8 million from the government for transitional and permanent housing for homeless individuals, according to figures provided by the city.
“Counting the number of people sleeping outdoors, in shelters or in transitional housing is critical to helping us understand the size and scope of homelessness in Berkeley,” Paul Buddenhagen, the director of Berkeley’s Health, Housing & Community Services said in a statement.
Volunteers conducting the last survey, in January 2015, determined there were an estimated 834 homeless people in Berkeley. That was a 23% increase from the previous count in 2009. Some homeless service providers, and the homeless themselves, have said that number is too low and have estimated there are about 1,200 homeless people in Berkeley. Alameda County had 4,040 homeless individuals in 2015.
In 2015, however, Alameda County and its various cities did not try and do an actual count of the homeless. Instead, volunteers counted those sleeping outside in sample areas and the results were used to calculate final figures.
But the group running the 2017 count decided to change tactics, in part because an actual count might result in more funds for the county than a projected account. So EveryOneHome, the organization overseeing the count, put out a call for volunteers. More than 500 people showed up in various locations around the county on Jan. 31. Some were community members and some were guides for those volunteers — generally, people who were homeless or who had previously experienced homelessness. They were paid $15 an hour for their services.
I arrived at the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library promptly at 5 a.m. to participate in the count. A group of us stood in front of the locked glass doors at the main entrance on Kittredge Street until we figured out we had to enter through a back door on Bancroft.
By 5:10 a.m. there were about 60 people gathered in the library community room, many sipping cups of coffee provided by EveryOneHome. The organizers told us we were going to be divided into groups of three or four and sent to a small area of Berkeley. We would be given a map of a neighborhood, as well as a survey and clipboard. Our task was to roam the streets, peek into doorways and alleyways and peer behind bushes and trees to see if we could spot anyone who appeared not to have housing. We were supposed to note people’s ages and sex, but not their race.
EveryOneHome uses the federal definition of homelessness in deciding who to count: “homeless individuals and families who stay in a place not ordinarily used for sleeping,” such as a “car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground.”
But there were some ground rules which seemed to complicate the count. Volunteers were not supposed to talk to the people they encountered. If they spotted a tent or a car that appeared occupied, volunteers couldn’t call out hello and ask directly how many people were inside. So guesswork is part of the count. EveryOneHome tries to compensate for this uncertainty by conducting in-depth follow-up interviews after the count is finished
I was teamed up with City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn (City Councilwoman Lori Droste was also a volunteer) and Moe Wright, a board member of EveryOne Home. Wright, a principle at BBI Construction and a Berkeley resident, had been on two previous counts.
Sophie, Moe, and I were assigned a broad swath north of University Avenue roughly bordered by Spruce Street and MLK. We left the library in the dark and parked near campus. We figured most of those sleeping outside would be clustered along the main arterials in the downtown. We started by the building that once held Ace Hardware.
Not surprisingly, there were many people sleeping in the doorways along that stretch of University. Many of the buildings are currently unoccupied as they are slated to become part of a modern apartment complex called Acheson Commons. We immediately saw a group of three men huddled together in a doorway in one of the buildings. They were awake and sitting up. The two doorways next to them were completely covered by cardboard contraptions set up to provide privacy for those sleeping behind the makeshift walls. We couldn’t see behind the walls so we broke one of the rules: we asked the men who were awake how many “neighbors” they had.
Hahn had walked numerous precincts when she ran for the District 5 City Council seat in the fall and had the best grasp on how to make sure we covered every nook and cranny. She was also the fastest walker. We generally split up, with two people walking down one side of the street and one on the other, trying to keep one another in sight.
In three hours, we counted 54 people who were experiencing homeless. Most of them were sleeping in spots one might expect: in Ohlone Park, along University, Martin Luther King, and Miliva. On one occasion, when we wandered into an alley off of Walnut Street, it was too dark to see so we had to use the flashlights on our cellphones.
Interestingly, we didn’t find anyone sleeping on property belonging to the University of California. We didn’t see anyone in the doorways of private homes, either. Most of those sleeping outside were on city-owned land or in storefronts.
It wasn’t always easy to know who was homeless or who was just up early for work. We peered into a coffee shop on the corner of Shattuck and Hearst around 6:30 a.m. and saw a neatly dressed woman sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee. She had some packages at her feet but there was no particular indication that she didn’t have permanent shelter. But then we spotted her about an hour later walking west on Hearst toward Milvia, burdened by a backpack and some plastic bags. Seeing her with so much stuff at such an early hour changed our assessment of her living situation. In our mind, she was homeless.
We also saw a young man sitting in a doorway of an apartment building on Milvia. He was playing his guitar and singing; he could have just been an early riser. We broke the rules then, too, and asked if had a place to sleep. He said he lived on the streets. Then he asked for a dollar.
Our walking tour led us past McDonald’s again and we went inside for a second time, this time fairly close to 8 a.m. The man who had been sleeping on a padded bench was now awake, but almost everyone we had spotted two hours earlier had left, to be replaced by another set of homeless people.
On the way out, I stopped to talk to a man who said he had once been an engineer at UC Berkeley but he had been living on the street for 19 years. He said his name was John Simone and he was 59 but he preferred to be called Red Wolf Moonkiller in acknowledgment of his Lakota roots. He wanted me to hear a song he had written about the callousness of the government and how it spent funds on buildings rather than people. It was quite good.
The result of the survey will be available in the summer.