Opinion: Berkeley needs a year-round, permanent homeless shelter now

When the Ninth St. shelter closes on Aug, 30, 90 people will have to return to the streets. Come to a Tuesday meeting to help identify a new, permanent home for the shelter.

Storage area for people’s things at BESS. Photo: Mary Rees

At the end of August, with NO ribbon cutting and No fanfare, the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter (BESS) at 9th St. and University Ave WILL CLOSE!!

In its place, there will be renovations, the addition of an industrial kitchen as well as actual restrooms (replacing the port-a-potties that all the unhoused, who waited in line for an evening’s rest and a mat lying on a concrete floor, deserved apparently).

The city will collect rent and at least 90 people will spend the first night of September on a sheet of cardboard, huddled in a doorway trying to stay warm and dry as the winter season approaches.

This has been on my list of struggles since early April.

The entrance to the Ninth Street shelter in the old Premier Cru building. Photo: Gary Wayne

Some History of the Premier Cru Building

In 2016, Berkeley purchased the old Premiere Cru building with the promise to eventually transform it into low-income affordable housing. Berkeley also discussed making it a temporary meeting place for the City Council meetings as well as leasing it out to a non-profit based in Berkeley.

In the winter after the 2017-2018 storm season started, Berkeley decided to use the building as a temporary storm shelter open seven nights a week. The city contracted with the Dorothy Day House to run the shelter, and original plans called for it to close April 15.

Some of us grew concerned as the deadline approached that those staying at the shelter would have nowhere to go. No replacement was proposed, and the city council was on a break. I went to visit the shelter to talk to those spending the night indoors and asked what they were going to do after April 15. Their fear and stories broke my heart.

Moni Law joined me and we took videos of some of the shelter residents, contacted as many council members as we could, and posted the stories of the residents on Facebook. I was relieved that the City Council found funds to keep the shelter open through May.

My job was not finished. The new shelter on Second Street, Pathways, was getting all this attention as its grand opening approached. It could only shelter 45 people for six months, however, in an attempt to get them housed. The Ninth Street shelter, BESS, in contrast, had room for 90+ overnight guests. Dorothy Day had also employed some of the homeless to work at the shelter and aid in its operation.

In June, right after Berkeley displaced a large encampment of homeless people who were living on Second Street, right next to where Pathways would be, there was a weekend where volunteers helped “beautify” the new $2.6 million Pathways compound. I sat there with signs protesting the latest closing date for the Ninth Street shelter, now scheduled for June 30th. I talked with many of the volunteers and urged them to speak with Mayor Jesse Arreguín to convince him to keep BESS open. Pathways is not a complete solution. It takes many pieces to solve the problem.

Since then I have started a petition, both online and paper, and spoken at every City Council meeting to urge Berkeley to make the Ninth Street shelter a 365-day-a-year, 24-hour-a-day operation, with showers, washing machines, dryers, workshops, computer lab, etc. I even spoke with the executive director of Dorothy Day House, David Stegman, who was enthusiastic about the proposal. It could have many, if not all, of the resources offered at Pathways. I have even suggested solutions for any neighborhood complaints.

At the last meeting in June, I presented over 1,200 signatures to the City Council and after a vote, was pleased that the city manager agreed to extend the closing date to August 30th. The council also allocated an additional $400,000 to keep the shelter open. However, it cannot be at the Ninth Street location.

A battle won, the war was not over though.

At the last City Council Meeting, July 24th, there was an article, already on the consent calendar, written in a way that many did not understand the implications of it. I saw it though. There were 59 items on the consent calendar alone that night and one that alarmed me.

43. Interim Use Agreements for University Avenue Center 
From: City Manager
Recommendation: Authorize the City Manager to negotiate lease terms and execute leases for occupancy of available space at University Avenue Center located at 1001 and 1011 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94710.
Financial Implications: See report
Contact: Phillip Harrington, Public Works, 981-6300

This article could be written on a tombstone for the shelter.

Never had this building and the shelter been referred to as “University Avenue Center.” Never had the shelter been referred to as “available space.” Never had I heard of this potential agreement to rent the space to the Berkeley Food Network! Never once was I informed during my public comments at this, nor other meetings, that an agenda item was going to consent to create a lease evicting those in the shelter.

I personally felt disrespected by the mayor and council and betrayed by the city I love. What’s worse is, I feel like I let down all the residents finding some solace at the shelter.

Homeless shelter at 1925 Ninth St.

Many have jobs that they will likely lose soon without any decent sleep, some used to have jobs at the shelter and of course, those jobs are already gone.

Many are disabled already getting next to no help with their physical challenges, some receive chemo treatments for their cancer and will have no place to cuddle together with their partners, feeling safe, as they go through the pain and sickness of these treatments. At least one resident is 72 years old and in the final stages of cancer!!!

Many are women afraid of what and/or who will hurt them out in the open…(not if, WILL!)
Some are still young”-ish” Many are our elders.

Some have helper animals that stay with them giving unconditional love and support.

Some may be lucky enough to still have a vehicle that still starts. How long will they be able to keep it before cruel laws making them move constantly due to unsubstantiated “complaints” and when they finally cannot move that vehicle, will have that somewhat safe cocoon towed away?

How many will be tormented by the “housed” ignoring them on the streets and teaching their children that these are dangerous people, stay away… Teaching these young minds to fear and, of course, eventually, hate and lastly justify all this by claiming they somehow deserved this!!

Thieves and junkies, drunks and dirty people that live like animals… NOT OUR NEIGHBORS! Certainly, it is not that we treat them like animals…
Swarming to Berkeley from points beyond to be lazy and get a free meal on OUR tax dollars…

We have not started separating children from parents and jailing them yet… How long before we start that, do you think? We already take away children through Children’s Protective Services, if they are discovered, based on complaints about their living conditions. Are these complaints substantiated?

The entire country is in an uproar about what has happened, the inhuman treatment of immigrant refugees with dark skin… (how come we don’t have that same rage about our own economic refugees?)

Man with machete slashes Berkeley woman outside her tent

This event happened in the middle of the afternoon, with witnesses present, just off the UC Berkeley campus. The perpetrator was arrested on suspicion of brandishing a machete at a mother and daughter in a tent. He was well known to BPD. It took them a few hours to capture and arrest him. (Recent article in Berkeleyside.)

I fear for all being displaced from this shelter, especially the women and those already compromised by failing health, age and disabilities. I also fear for those that may look healthy and young, disabilities are not always visible.

Please watch some videos of residents in the shelter that have no place to go on Sept. 1, 2018, but the streets. 90+ people!!

Every night I fear for ALL MY NEIGHBORS living in the streets!

STOP THE MADNESS!!

Arreguín and City Council members Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison and Kriss Worthington are hosting an emergency town hall meeting to identify a new location for a year-round shelter on Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis St. 

Barbara Brust is the founder of Consider the Homeless!