Berkeley has nearly half a million dollars handy to turn its temporary winter shelter into a year-round facility. But where will it be located?
Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Councilwoman Cheryl Davila and others held a community brainstorming session Tuesday night in hopes of identifying potential sites for the extended shelter. The operation is currently housed at 1925 Ninth St. at University Avenue, in the former Premier Cru building warehouse, but is slated to close at the end of August.
About 50 people showed up to the South Berkeley Senior Center meeting, including residents and staff of the shelter, and others concerned about its looming closure. This year’s Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter, operated by Dorothy Day House, opened in December 2017, and has been on the brink of closure multiple times only to be given extensions. It is an annual enterprise offering homeless people temporary refuge during the rainy and cold months.
The Berkeley Food Network is lined up to occupy the space next, but city staff says the shelter would need to move even if there weren’t other uses planned for the Ninth Street site. California fire code requires buildings to undergo a “rigorous” safety procedure if they are occupied for longer than 180 days, said Paul Buddenhagen, interim deputy city manager, at the meeting. Berkeley has already violated those rules with the shelter, he said. The city did not immediately respond to a request for the specific code section in question.
The Ninth Street shelter has met its 90-person capacity most nights, according to the operators, and many of those people are worried about where they will go next.
“Dorothy Day finds itself in a very difficult position,” said executive director David Stegman. “People are asking us questions from every angle and we have no answers. All we can tell them is on September 1, we’re going to put you out on the street with all your belongings. It’s not a great answer. We’re taking phone numbers, emails, whatever we can do.”
The shelter serves hot dinners to residents every night, with food often donated by community organizations and individuals. The 22 employees monitoring the shelter are currently or formerly homeless themselves, and they get employment assistance from Dorothy Day.
“Homeless people managing homeless people, it’s a phenomenal thing,” Stegman said. “The longer they’re out of a job, the more at-risk they’re going to be.” He said he fears the dedicated food and other service providers might go elsewhere too if the shelter is not reopened soon after it closes.
“We are committed to continuing the shelter, but we need to find a location,” Arreguín said. “The money is there.” The recently approved city budget included $400,000, a significant allocation, for extending emergency shelter services.
The site suggestion that seemed to excite Arreguín and Buddenhagen most Tuesday was the space currently holding the 36-bed Berkeley Food and Housing Project men’s shelter in the Veterans Building on Center Street. The shelter is set to move to the current women’s shelter site on Dwight Way. But the location has some seismic issues, as does Old City Hall, which the mayor offered as another possibility. The serious seismic concerns at Old City Hall are, in fact, the reason the City Council is vacating that space — and moving into the Berkeley Unified meeting room.
Arreguín said the city is reaching out to religious leaders to see whether any church space is available, and combing through all possible public sites.
Some other suggestions thrown out by the crowd, in a discussion facilitated by longtime advocate and former shelter director boona cheema, ranged from unlikely to impossible, including the soon-to-close Brennan’s Restaurant, the recently closed Hs Lordships and other private commercial properties. One woman suggested the shelter move into the vacant ground floor of the small apartment building she lives in.
The room erupted in laughter when another attendee suggested putting the shelter in the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s mansion, which is not occupied by Carol Christ but is used for some events. Students protested there recently, calling for the university to convert the large property into much-needed student housing.
Susan Black, a Dorothy Day board member and a neighbor who volunteers at the shelter, suggested the West Berkeley Senior Center. But that building is slated to serve the seniors temporarily displaced during major upcoming renovations at the North Berkeley center.
A number of people at the meeting expressed skepticism that the shelter actually needs to close. Some questioned whether it is actually legally required to shutter, and others asked the city to risk bending the rules as it’s already done for many days.
“This is the first I’ve ever heard of the 180-day rule,” said Margy Wilkinson, an advocate for homeless residents. “Why didn’t we start looking for another location as soon as it opened? Who’s in charge? The idea that this shelter is going to close and these vulnerable people are going to be put out on the street makes me completely insane.”
The mayor grew visibly frustrated at times, and attempted repeatedly to assure the crowd, “There’s isn’t a lack of will. There’s a lack of location.” He said he’d included the $400,000 in his budget, which was approved by the council, specifically with the intention of extending the shelter.
After the meeting, shelter resident Paul Senga said he considers himself “living proof” of the operation’s positive impact. Senga said he went from sleeping in the streets and at BART stations to finding a job while living at the shelter.
“Everybody just supports each other,” he said. “It’s safe.”
Even if a new location is secured, shelters alone will not alleviate the homelessness crisis, Buddenhagen pointed out.
“On any given night we have somewhere between 900 to 1,000 homeless people in the city of Berkeley. It’s our collective failure, frankly,” Buddenhagen said. “One of the things we know is shelters don’t end homelessness. We need to find more shelter space, but we also need to put our eyes on the permanent solution, and that’s housing.”
Some people at the meeting, before addressing the shelter question, also made reference to Saturday’s shooting at San Pablo Park in South Berkeley. Some attendees and officials said they were horrified by the violence that left a 25-year-old man in critical condition and affected two bystanders as well. A separate meeting devoted to those concerns is planned for Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Frances Albrier Community Center at 2800 Park St.