City

One year after a Berkeleyside special on homelessness: Where we are today

A man stores his possessions on a couch on the street. Photo: Ted Friedman

In the 364 days since June 29, 2016, when Berkeleyside devoted a whole day of coverage to the issue of those experiencing homelessness, much has happened to those living on the streets and to the city that provides services.

Today, Wednesday, June 28, Berkeleyside is again devoting the day to the homeless crisis in Berkeley, participating once more in the SF Homeless Project initiated by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016. Dozens of other Bay Area media are also taking part.

What’s ahead for the homeless crisis?

It looks like the coming year will be as eventful as the last when it comes to homelessness in our city, although no city official or social service provider believes Berkeley will be able to house its close to 1,000 homeless people anytime soon. Steps will be taken, progress made, perhaps, but there just isn’t enough housing, or money for housing, or even short-term solutions to find beds for everyone now sleeping in cars, shelters or on the streets.

A recent white paper prepared for Mayor Jesse Arreguín by boona cheema, the former executive director of BOSS, Elliot Halpern of the ACLU, Jiro Arase-Barham, an intern at City Hall, and Jacquelyn McCormick, Arreguín’s senior advisor, states that approximately 20% of Berkeley’s chronically homeless population will receive permanent housing and wrap-around services over the next five years. But the remaining 80% will not be housed for many more, according to the memo.


“Housing that is both permanent and affordable is the solution — but the inventory will never meet the need,” according to the document. “Even if we were able to double the rate of current housing placement, it would take over 10 years to house all of our homeless population.”

Arreguín was elected on a promise to make ending homelessness a priority. And he and City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn have introduced the Pathways Project, a $4.3 million annual plan to create two transitional shelters to accommodate those on the street. Berkeley already spends $17.7 million in federal, state and local funds on its array of homelessness programs and services, and has pledged to pursue an ambitious $90 million homeless housing development on Berkeley Way. Only time will tell if Berkeley will find the money and donations to make it all come to fruition.

From June 29, 2016, to June 27, 2017, Berkeleyside published 59 stories and opinion pieces on those experiencing homelessness. Here is a recap of some of what happened in that time:

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Berkeley has gone up about 16% since 2015, to 972, according to a “point-in-time” count done in February by volunteers working with the nonprofit group EveryOne Home. But many social service providers and city officials believe that is only an approximation since it does not capture couch surfers and others in precarious situations. In 2016, Berkeley officials said there were about 1,000 homeless in Berkeley. The EveryOne Home count showed that 308 of those in Berkeley were sheltered, while 664 slept outside. Countywide, homelessness grew 39% from 2015, from 4,040 individuals to 5,629. Most surveyed said money issues led to their lack of housing, with 12% attributing their homelessness to mental health issues and 12% to substance use issues, according to the count.

The Hub is located inside the Berkeley Food & Housing Project headquarters on Fairview. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Starting in January 2016, Berkeley reorganized the way it brought people into the system. Previously, those looking for shelter or services could go to almost any community-based organization and access services. Berkeley wanted to move from an emergency approach to homelessness to one focused on getting people into long-term housing. Now people must begin with the “coordinated entry system” at “The Hub” in South Berkeley. So far the approach has helped get 68 chronically homeless people off the street into permanent housing, according to statistics shared with Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman. Since it opened, The Hub has fielded 6,460 calls, has helped 946 people who walked into the office, done 1,134 street outreach engagements, a recent city report. There are 140 shelter beds available in Berkeley each night.


“Obviously, getting people who are homeless into supportive housing is a not a simple process, like buying a gadget at a store,” Chakko wrote in an email. “It’s a long-term commitment that takes months or years to see dividends.”

Berkeley doubled the number of people it could help during winter. In December, at the start of a winter of torrential rain, the city manager activated an “emergency operations center” approach and doubled the number of shelter beds available, to 130, in two locations. Berkeley also paid for the Dorothy Day House to operate a 47-bed shelter on Second Street that had ample storage, allowed people to bring pets and stay during the day. Because of private donations, that shelter remained open until June 15. The cost of the extra winter services was around $400,000, according to a memo by Paul Buddenhagen, the director of Health, Housing & Community Services for the city.

For the first time, Berkeley has established a five-person team of outreach workers, including case managers and a public health nurse, that will focus on getting chronically homeless, mentally ill individuals off the streets and into housing. The team won’t wait in offices until clients come to them but will go to parks, shelters, encampments and sidewalks to find out their needs. These case managers will focus on the people that studies show are the most critical to help: “the long-term homeless who suffer from disabilities, specifically mental health,” the city said in a statement.

Homeless camp at Gilman Feb. 1 2017. Photo by Nancy Rubin
Homeless camp at Gilman Feb. 1, 2017. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The encampment at the Gilman underpass has been disbanded. For much of 2016, the “poster child” for the issue of homelessness was the encampment at the Gilman underpass. Dozens of people, many of them addicted to drugs or mentally ill, set up camps and sleeping bags there. One resourceful Berkeley resident served a Thanksgiving meal complete with a tablecloth and candles. Slowly but steadily, Caltrans, which owns and controls the land under the freeway, set up chain-link fencing around places people once camped. The space is now vacant. Many former Gilman residents are now camping across from the Sea Breeze Market on University Avenue, right by Interstate 80 and the marina.

A number of First They Came for the Homeless members in November 2016 after city workers rousted them from their tents on the Adeline median.  Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The First They Came for the Homeless encampment is thriving. The other encampment that garnered a lot of public attention in the past year was established by the group “First They Came for the Homeless.” Some of the group’s leaders, including Michael Zint and Mike Lee, have served as articulate spokesmen for the right of the homeless for self-determination. They have long insisted that, if the city gave them a piece of land, they could successfully self-govern. However, the group, which also calls itself the Poor Tour, continuously set up tents on public property. The city of Berkeley removed about 13 of those encampments from October through January, according to a graphic T-shirt designed by the group. The “Poor Tour” has been staying on the Berkeley-Oakland border across from Sweet Adeline’s Bakery for six months. There have not been complaints about the group, so the city has not forced them to move, according to Mayor Arreguín. While Berkeley has looked around for a possible permanent campsite, Arreguín told Berkeleyside recently the city will not establish a permanent spot for tents.


Mike Zint, the founder of First They Came for the Homeless, talks at the vigil held for Laura Jadwin. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A number of homeless people died on the streets. Over the rainy winter months, a number of people living outside succumbed to the elements. It is hard to quantify this number, but at least three people died outside in the past year, prompting a number of advocates to hold a vigil calling for increased services. Roberto Benitas died in his sleeping bag on Sept. 11 while camping outside the former U-Haul store on San Pablo Avenue. Laura Jadwin, 55, died under a tree in an empty lot on Martin Luther King Jr. Way on Jan. 14. And Daniel Messer, originally from Texas, died in the 2000 block of Hearst Way on Jan. 22. “Hate Man,” a perennial figure who lived in People’s Park, also died, although it was at Alta Bates Hospital.

Lawsuits filed claiming government agencies are illegally seizing property. When Caltrans or Berkeley identifies an illegal encampment, they generally set up notices telling people to leave and remove their stuff by a particular date. If people, tents and other belongings are still in place by the announced time and date, the objects are removed. Some are thrown into the trash and some are sent to storage. People living in Berkeley’s various encampments have continually complained that most of their stuff is thrown away. In December, a number of civil-rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit demanding that Caltrans stop “confiscating and destroying their property in ongoing sweeps.” The suit named 28 people who had their possession confiscated from under the Gilman underpass.

The idea of building storage lockers seems to have been set aside. The City Council approved, in concept, a number of restrictions on how much room people could take up on the sidewalks, but postponed implementation until Berkeley built storage bins that could hold people’s possessions. Berkeley has abandoned the idea of stand-alone storage facilities because they are too expensive and will incorporate them into future construction, leaving the future of the sidewalk property rules in question.

Because of the recent election, more money will be available to construct affordable housing. Voters in Alameda County approved a $580 million bond measure, Measure A1, for affordable housing. Berkeley’s share of that should be $15.8 million. In Berkeley, the passage of Measure U1, which raised the business license tax on rentals, could generate from $3 million to $4 million a year, which could be directed toward affordable housing. In June, the City Council voted to prioritize the construction of a supportive housing project for the homeless on a parking lot on Berkeley Way. City officials plan to use $9 million of the Measure A1 money for this when it becomes available. Practically speaking, this leaves Berkeley’s savings account for affordable housing empty. However, Jacquelyn McCormick, the senior advisor to the mayor, said Berkeley has been able to get $4 million from the county’s boomerang fund to apply against displacement.