Opinion: A fast and affordable way to shelter Berkeley’s homeless

Berkeley should use a prefabricated metal building like those used for aircraft hangars to construct a shelter. Land isn’t a problem — the building can be put up on a little-used portion of a street.

About 1,000 homeless people live in Berkeley. There has been a lot of talk about providing shelter for them, but the vast majority still have nowhere to go.

I propose that we build permanent shelter space to accommodate every homeless person in Berkeley, in a way that is fast and affordable. To do so requires thinking a small way outside the box.

Why build?

I believe that housing is a basic human right. Many people, at some point in their lives, will be unable to provide housing for themselves. Often this is because they are disabled. In fact, one definition of disabled is being unable to fully take care of oneself.

I don’t think unfortunate people should be forced to live in a doorway or under an overpass.

In addition, when people live in places that are not intended for human habitation, problems often arise. Crime, disease, rodents, fires and many other problems can and do occur.

Buying market-rate housing for 1,000 people could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And if Berkeley provided market-rate-type housing for free to everyone who asked for it, thousands or even millions more people would come to Berkeley and quickly overwhelm any number of units we could provide.

Even traditional low-income housing won’t help many of Berkeley’s homeless because they don’t have the income needed to pay for that. I have spoken with homeless people who get a $900 monthly disability check that they can either spend on food or housing.

How can we make this work?

Berkeley can potentially provide permanent shelter space for 1,000 people at a very low cost to the taxpayers if we think creatively.

The basic requirement for shelter is literally a roof over one’s head. And that can be provided for far lower cost than traditional market-rate or low-income housing.

A minimal structure to keep out the rain and provide some heat can be built for around $20 per square foot, in addition to the cost of the land required to build it. Prefabricated metal buildings are often used as aircraft hangars and industrial buildings, but they can provide basic shelter for people who would otherwise be living outside.

I have personal experience with buildings like this, as my father built one here in the Bay Area to house his construction business and then another next to that as a light industrial rental. My sister and I inherited these years ago and they are currently rented to small construction-related businesses. They are clean, safe, fireproof structures with skylights that bring in natural light and reduce energy use.

What really matters?

Talking with homeless people in Berkeley, I have heard their desire to have a place of their own where they know they will be allowed to sleep and store their possessions. Many homeless people previously had jobs, homes, relationships and families, and they still retain important keepsakes from earlier days. Plus their everyday items like clothes and bicycles.

People sometimes think about what they would grab if their home was about to burn to the ground. And some unlucky people have escaped wildfires with only their most prized possessions. Or sometimes without even those.

Many of the homeless are in a similar situation. The structures they were living in may not have been made uninhabitable by a natural disaster, but a more personal calamity has made any housing uninhabitable for them.

What is really needed?

I believe that an indoor cubicle with locking storage would be a big improvement over many of the places that homeless people currently live. An 8-foot by 10-foot personal space with access to common areas like showers and laundry facilities might require 150 square feet of total space per person. At $20 per square foot of construction cost, that works out to $3,000 per person or $3 million for all 1,000 estimated Berkeley homeless.

For that price, the homeless would get to live indoors, out of the weather, and would have a higher standard of living than they currently do. By replacing tent cities with managed shelter space, the cost to provide public safety services might well drop more than the cost of constructing and operating the buildings.

Measure O and Measure P could easily provide the funding required to build and support these structures. I will be voting yes on both of them. Regardless of whether O and P are successful at the polls, $3 million would be a small price to pay to greatly reduce the problems of homelessness. The city of Berkeley is already spending millions of dollars a year on homeless services without really solving the problems.

Where?

The traditional way of looking for shelter space is based on the commercial real estate development model. And in that realm, land is very expensive because it can be used to make a profit. But the city of Berkeley owns a huge amount of land right here in town that does not fit that model and is generally considered to have little or no value.

Many of Berkeley’s streets are required for automobile travel, but some sections of some streets are not essential for this purpose. For example, the block of Bowditch Street between Haste Street and Dwight Way doesn’t seem to be very necessary for the functioning of the city. It deadends into Dwight and doesn’t have any driveways on either side.

If this block was closed to vehicle traffic, life would go on. Cars and trucks would find another way to get where they need to go without much disruption to city life.

This section of Bowditch is approximately 40 feet by 300 feet or 12,000 square feet. That is big enough to fit 80 shelter cubes at 150 square feet each.

I am familiar with this particular block because it is within easy walking distance of my house. A thorough review of every street in Berkeley might find some other similar blocks. If we could find a dozen of them, we could build enough shelters to accommodate every homeless person in Berkeley.

Is it worth it?

I think this would be a big step forward in solving the problems of homelessness. It is not a 5-star hotel, but it is basic shelter, literally a roof over every person’s head.

For some people, it might be a place they stay while they get back on their feet, return to work or recover from debilitating health problems. For others, it might be the place they live out their lives.

This kind of living space might not seem very desirable compared to owning or renting a house or apartment. I think most people who are capable of working and providing a home for themselves would rather do so than live in this kind of a shelter.

That can keep the shelters from being overrun with able-bodied people looking for a free ride. But for the people who need it, this kind of space could be a godsend.

I think we owe this basic level of human kindness to the homeless, especially if it costs taxpayers little or no money.

Russ Tilleman is running for City Council in District 8.