You have to move quickly to keep up with Ari Neulight.
On a recent Friday morning, Berkeleyside joined Neulight in People’s Park as he checked in with unhoused residents who have made the park and nearby neighborhood streets their home. As soon as he arrived, the requests began: “Ari, I need to holler at you,” one person shouted across the grass. Neulight said he’d be back, then dropped off a tarp to someone who’d asked for it before stopping to speak with a man and woman camping under a tree surrounded by several crates of clothing, purses and other items.
“It’s good to see you sitting up,” Neulight, pronounced “new light,” told the man, who had recently been released from the hospital.
Not long ago, the couple had gotten housing in Stockton. But they said it was a “hellhole.” There were Crips and Bloods, and they’d seen someone shot fatally in the head. So they’d come back to stay in the park in Berkeley until they could find another option. Neulight encouraged the couple to follow up with the agency that made the Stockton placement, particularly as it had opened a new headquarters a few blocks away.
After catching up for several minutes, Neulight broke off from that conversation to take a call: Someone needed help getting through to a housing caseworker. The man couldn’t remember the caseworker’s extension, so Neulight set up a conference call and patched them together. Once they were connected, he continued to hold the phone so the pair could talk without him. As Neulight waited, a woman sitting alone on the west side of the park, near the community garden, got Neulight’s attention. He needed to call her friend, she said. Neulight had gotten the friend a shelter bed, but she’d been turned away. He promised to follow up.
Neulight is the first social worker hired by UC Berkeley to work directly with park regulars to boost their income through government assistance programs, connect them with services, and attempt to get them on the path to housing. The Berkeley City Council recognized him earlier this month with a proclamation for his efforts to build relationships and act as a liaison between UC Berkeley and the city, along with a range of Alameda County service providers. For a number of park users, Neulight’s presence may be the first positive decision the university has made amid a long history of tension.
In the past nine months or so, Neulight — working with the city’s homeless outreach team and other local partners — has helped 13 people get into housing. He’s helped nine others get housing vouchers or subsidies. And he said he hopes to help “many more” soon. That’s because a significant number of the people he works with score very high on the vulnerability scale the county uses to match those in need with permanent supportive housing.
The numbers may sound low, but the process itself can be glacial. The city’s assessment takes about 20 minutes, but getting someone to a point where they trust the system enough to answer those questions and are ready to make a change can take much longer, Neulight said. Then comes the matching process, where someone actually gets a unit. That happens a couple of times a month at most. For those who are matched to a voucher rather than a unit, the wait for housing could last one to nine months. Interested in trying your luck with an affordable housing lottery? Prepare to wait years.
When Neulight began his park outreach, he took it slow. He would sit quietly at a table, watching the pace and energy of the day. After he got a sense of the park’s rhythm, he began to say hello to people in the afternoons, including on Fridays when East Bay Food Not Bombs gives out food at the park.
“You just have to be careful in the beginning,” he said. “You’re entering a community where you’re an unknown. People don’t know where you fit in. It’s kinda weird.”
But as he helped one person, then another, interest in his services grew. Through his work, he’s also been able to bring more visibility, among service providers, the city and the county, to the needs of people in the park. And those needs are significant.
Nearly half of Berkeley’s 50 highest-need unhoused individuals are regulars at People’s Park, Neulight said. Park users are frequently among the top 100 people on the city’s list, which has more than 1,000 people on it. That’s why Neulight tries to get as many people as possible assessed through the Bay Area Community Services Housing Resource Center, which just opened in July at 2809 Telegraph Ave. (at Stuart Street) — to get them in line for consideration for permanent supportive housing should it become available: “It’s really only the people at the highest, highest vulnerability that are going to be matched,” he said. “It can take awhile.”
“Ari is the only guy who comes and helps us”
Neulight has access to a shared office in the park — in the building that also houses public restrooms. People often urinate in the sheltered corner by his doorway, but he doesn’t much care. Throughout the morning, he bounced back and forth between that space and a nearby storage room, doing a couple of circuits in and around the park to ensure anyone who needed to speak with him had a chance.
Park resident Sean McCall Lopez caught up with Neulight in the northeast corner of the park. They walked to the storage room so Neulight could grab an item for him. As McCall Lopez waited, he fiddled with his pants, which sagged around his waist. He described an “improvised belt system” he’d come up with to solve the problem, and tried to demonstrate how it worked.
“You need a belt?” Neulight called, from inside the room.
“Actually… yes,” McCall Lopez said after a brief pause.
McCall Lopez said he met Neulight soon after getting to People’s Park. A friend introduced him. Over time, Neulight had gotten him help with mental health and substance abuse problems as well as getting on a path to housing, he said.
“Ari has helped me with everything,” he said, as he attached Neulight’s charger to his belt with a clip so he could charge his cellphone for a few minutes. “From not committing suicide to not giving up to trying to live a better life. Being a better father to my son and a better son to my dad. Ari is the only guy who comes and helps us.”
McCall Lopez said he had become addicted to heroin as a 14-year-old in Puerto Rico. It had taught him to size up people quickly: “You have to be very fast, or you’re dead.” The first time he talked with Neulight, it was clear the man was “legit,” that he cared about the park community and wanted to help in any way he could.
Another thing Neulight has done to help is to get a handful of cellphones from Beast Mobile, which he loans out to people who are the closest to getting housed. The road to housing is a long one but, once a match happens between a person and a housing opportunity, be it a unit or a voucher, the clock starts ticking. If Neulight can’t find that person within five days to let them know about their placement, they could lose a coveted spot.
He calls the approach “targeted giving”: Knowing his supplies are limited, Neulight considers where people are in the process to decide what he can give away. For items like socks and granola bars, which are part of his staple supplies, the bar is pretty low. But, if people start asking for larger items every day, he has to take that into account. For those getting linked with disability assistance, Veterans Affairs or other services, he tries to say yes when he can, even to a request for a more expensive item like a sleeping bag or shoes.
At one point during the morning, Neulight dropped off a pair of black pants to a man parked on the south side of the park. The man needed them for a job interview. When he learned from this reporter that she was shadowing Neulight to learn about his job, he quipped: “He ain’t no good!”
But then the man, who asked to be identified only as “J,” turned serious: “We need about 3-4 people like him.” J said he’d prayed to God for help. And then he met Neulight: “He’s trying his best to do everything for people out here.”
J said it can be a challenge to build trust in the community, and that it requires skill and sensitivity to do the job well. An offer of help brings with it significant scrutiny, he added: “You say you want to help? They watch how you interact.”
“I think he needs an assistant,” added Ninja Kitty, a longtime fixture on Berkeley streets, who was sitting nearby.
A woman who identified herself as Unicorn agreed: “This is the one dude that comes out here not surrounded by police.”
By this point, Neulight had made almost a full circuit around the park, from the west side community garden through the park to the shaded east side, around the southern border at Dwight Way and up into the garden again. He ran into a man who said things were going well, all things considered, but that his van had been towed. Neulight remembered that he had some important mail for the man in his storage room. Neulight said he’d be right back.
On the walk, he said it had been a pretty typical, quiet morning. As if on cue, a noisy argument broke out in the southeast corner of the park. The shouting escalated, as more people joined in. But it was over just as quickly, as McCall Lopez stalked away, yelling back toward the group: “I violated YOU, baby!”
Neulight said, for the most part, park regulars resolve issues on their own. If he sees a weapon or an unsafe situation, he lets folks know he’ll have to call police. But that’s not a typical occurrence during his visits, he said: “They look out for each other.”
As for the mail delivery, Neulight has a P.O. box he makes available for important documents, such as IDs, driver’s licenses and birth certificates. He can’t take on the amount of mail that JC Orton handles, but he tries to make it as easy as he can for critical paperwork to get to its owners.
A new vision at People’s Park
The idea to hire a social worker for the park came from UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Architecture Sam Davis. In 2015, Davis told UC Berkeley it must do more to tackle the challenges in the park. One of his recommendations was for Cal Chancellor Carol Christ to bring on a social worker, in part because the city did not have the bandwidth to serve all the needs there, Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof told Berkeleyside this week.
In his 2015 blog post about the history of People’s Park, Davis wrote, “The park has been a problem for over 40 years, and the University has been unwilling to address it.” Many people who stay in the park, he said in the blog, struggle with mental illness and substance abuse. He said drug sales are also an issue in the park, which has a higher crime rate than any other area of campus.
In 2017, as the university worked on plans to build housing in People’s Park, Christ hired Neulight into the dean’s office in the School of Social Welfare. According to the university, Neulight “regularly engages with as many as 80 people, some of whom frequent the park, while others seek him out as his reputation spreads.” Neulight was well prepared for the job, having spent 13 years working in supportive housing in San Francisco’s Mission and Tenderloin districts.
Mogulof said the university’s “over-arching objective” for Neulight is for him “to help as many people as possible without regard for, or connection to any future development” at People’s Park. But he went on to say that, “over the next several months,” one of Neulight’s main tasks will be “exploring and seeking suitable alternatives once development begins.” Neulight’s position is currently funded for three more years.
In addition to walking around the park for several hours most days, Neulight helps people get to appointments by handing out bus passes and setting up Uber rides. He also gets regular calls and texts from community members he works with.
When Neulight described how he’d built the bridges that have helped him connect people with services, he said folks had seen him around and “it just happens.” After a moment, however, he added that he’d worked hard to be accountable and consistent, to show up for people when they needed him: “I just want to figure out where I can be a support. I’m in your home: That’s kinda the sense.”
It can be a bit of a balancing act, he said, to ensure he’s available enough — without overstaying his welcome.
As he continued his route through the park, the woman who’d left her Stockton home to return to the park approached him and this reporter to wish them well. “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” she insisted. Then she pointed to her area under the tree and said, “Next time, it’ll be nicer and neater.”
In addition to his work at the park and as a liaison, Neulight also works with students on projects related to homelessness and with Cal’s Suitcase Clinic. Every two weeks he meets with staff from the Housing Resource Center and the city, including Berkeley Mental Health workers, to share notes on cases and brainstorm about challenges. In that meeting, when they report that someone has been housed, they ring a bell to celebrate.
Beyond People’s Park
After dropping off the mail to the man whose van had been stolen, Neulight walked south to Willard Park to talk with a man he’d been helping with housing. Though his primary focus is People’s Park, Neulight speaks with unsheltered people on campus and on Telegraph Avenue and elsewhere in the Southside neighborhood. Sometimes he’ll meet people at the park, and they later move to a new spot. Neulight does his best to stay connected. He also stays in touch once they have a caseworker or help through other services or agencies.
When Neulight found the man he was looking for at Willard, he was propped up on his side next to a friend in a secluded area. The man quickly began to describe a medical issue he’d been having. The morning was like that again and again, as people shared their personal challenges and successes with Neulight without hesitation.
“This guy is an angel,” the man told this reporter, of Neulight.
A few minutes later, after Neulight said goodbye and continued on his walk, he said it had taken the man a long time to consider housing a viable option. Neulight first met the man on Telegraph Avenue. He’d been on the street for 30 years.
“I should probably do something different,” the man had said. He’d watched a number of his longtime friends get housed by the city. It got him thinking.
“They’re all doing it, but I’m not,” the man had told Neulight. So Neulight helped him get an ID and a social security card. Neulight connected him to a clinic and helped him apply for disability. The man later got a needs assessment through the Housing Resource Center; the county program prioritizes people who have been unsheltered for a significant length of time and have other challenges, such as physical or mental disabilities. The man scored high on the scale and — eventually — got a housing voucher. (As of publication time, he was still awaiting placement.)
When Neulight first started his outreach at the park, he was concerned that being affiliated with the university might get in the way of providing services. Many park users have little positive to say about the university or its past efforts.
“What is it going to be like for UC to be coming into this space?” Neulight had wondered. So he focused on building relationships and, these days, he said the subject doesn’t come up much. He remembers one person telling him, however, “You’re, like, the one good thing they’ve done.”
Two years ago, Neulight’s role was new to Berkeley. Now, the idea of putting an outreach worker in a particular neighborhood may be gaining traction elsewhere in the city. In February, the Downtown Business Association hired a part-time social service outreach worker, whom Neulight helped train. And several Willard neighbors have expressed interest in the concept, too.
He said he’s happy to see the idea take hold. But the praise that matters most to him, Neulight added, is when someone he’s worked with sends a friend to him for help: “Those are the things that touch my heart.”
This story is part of SF Homeless Project. On July 31, Berkeleyside is joining, for the third time, with dozens of Bay Area media outlets for one day of coverage focused on people living on the streets and in shelters.