South Berkeley neighbors say new YEAH! youth shelter location won’t work

Residents near King and 62nd streets told their councilman, Ben Bartlett (lower left corner), that the city’s proposal for a new youth shelter in their neighborhood is a bad idea. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A proposal to move a longstanding emergency shelter for youth from University Avenue to South Berkeley met with steep resistance from neighbors Tuesday night.

Dozens of residents from the blocks around 3404 King St., which currently serves as transitional housing for youth, told city officials that the neighborhood is plagued by violence and gang activity and would be the wrong environment for young people trying to get off the streets.

“From my doorstep, I can see where five people have been murdered,” a 10-year resident of the neighborhood told council. “I just really don’t think you’ve done any research.”

The YEAH! (pronounced “yay”) youth shelter at 1744 University Ave. has to move because of “disagreements with the landlord,” according to the staff report for Tuesday night’s Berkeley City Council meeting. Representatives from Covenant House California, which runs YEAH!, said they needed a council vote Tuesday night or would lose the $422,579 HUD grant needed for the transition. Without that money, YEAH! would likely close by year’s end, they said.


YEAH!, which serves 18- to 24-year-old youth experiencing homelessness, plans to open a 30-bed shelter with supportive services on King Street. The shelter would operate 24/7, 365 days a year.

Neighbors said they had only just learned about the proposal in the past week and pleaded with officials to take more time before making a decision. They dinged the city for its complete lack of outreach to the neighborhood.

Kelly Wallace, who runs the city’s Health, Housing & Community Services department, apologized profusely to neighbors and officials for the oversight. Wallace said the issue had been known to staff for about two months and explained that a council vote Tuesday night would begin a neighborhood process that would involve multiple community meetings and input, and further council comment on the lease terms related to the move, among other issues.

That wasn’t the only issue at play, however. Tom Alexander, president and CEO of the Fred Finch Youth Center — which operates Turning Point, the transitional housing currently at 3404 King — said he had also been trying to take his staff and residents into consideration as the process unfolded. He said he didn’t want them to hear about the proposal too soon, which could cause them undue stress.

Alexander said Turning Point had operated at a 20% loss for two decades and that the program would end regardless within the next year or so.

Bill Bedrossian, president and CEO of Covenant House California, joined in the apologies, saying he had thought the community process could not begin until Tuesday night’s vote had happened.

Bill Bedrossian of Covenant House (left) addresses council as neighbors hold protest signs behind him. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Bedrossian said Covenant House had searched for two years, and worked with multiple real estate agents, to try to find an appropriate spot for YEAH! in Berkeley. They came up empty. The Fred Finch location was the only viable option, he said.

But it’s not without its challenges. Berkeley’s normal zoning rules would not allow the shelter to open on King. But the city’s shelter crisis resolution, approved by council in 2017, would let the city of Berkeley become the leaseholder and designate the property as a “public facility.” Then the YEAH! deal would work.

Neighbors said they have been trying hard to address a slew of issues in the area, which is already too impacted by challenges to take on another one. They also said a liquor store near 3404 King, as well as the presence of pimps, gangs and drug addicts, would not be the right place to drop 30 at-risk youth.

Jarekhye Covarrubias, who runs YEAH!, was one of the few people to speak in favor of the move Tuesday night. He said he’d worked in shelters in a number of challenging places and would be able to help address the neighborhood issues if YEAH! moves in.

“It becomes our community,” he told council and residents alike. Covarrubias said he himself would be “pushing pimps and drug dealers” away, as he’d done in other tough neighborhoods in the past.

There wasn’t much detail provided Tuesday night as to why YEAH! can’t come to an agreement with its landlord to stay at its current location. But Rev. Cary Bass-Deschênes of Lutheran Church of the Cross, YEAH!’s current home, said one issue is that multiple organizations share the church space. As YEAH! operations have expanded in recent years — becoming a year-round shelter — it’s put a crunch on other users.

One YEAH! founder who spoke to council said, in addition, the church building is almost a century old and is not designed for youth: “YEAH! is in desperate need of a new home.”

Berkeley Councilwoman Kate Harrison, in whose district YEAH! is currently located, said she loves the program and that there are no associated issues with it in her district.

Neighbors pushed back on that position. One referenced an allegation of sexual battery at the shelter earlier this year. (Charges were not filed in that case.) Police calls about disturbances at the shelter are not infrequent either.

Neighbors said repeatedly that their concerns are not about homelessness — but about the safety of the youth and for them to be in a supportive environment.

The Berkeley City Council, Sept. 24, 2019. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The council discussion was truncated due to the hour, but council members ultimately agreed unanimously to give the city manager the authority to move forward on lease negotiations. (Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilman Rigel Robinson were absent Tuesday night due to an officially approved “sister city” trip to Gongju, Korea, for the 65th Annual Baekje Cultural Festival.)

As part of the motion, council members promised there will be four community meetings scheduled. Dates were not announced. The issue will have to come back to council multiple times before a final vote.

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila told South Berkeley residents she couldn’t understand why the neighborhood drug dealing issues were still happening — despite all their concerns and knowledge of the situation.

“How come that can be going on for 10, 20 years and not be resolved?” she asked. She assured neighbors that the details about YEAH! could be worked out later: “It doesn’t matter where it is, we just need to get the funding right now.”

Bartlett said he’d like to see other council districts step up and find places throughout the city to shelter homeless youth. Despite his vote to move ahead, he agreed with neighbors that a location for YEAH! on King Street would post serious challenges.

“We’re just concerned about tossing minnows in a pool of sharks,” he said. “It’s predation right there.”

Note: After publication, Berkeleyside added a bit more information about the sexual battery allegations at YEAH! earlier this year; charges were not filed in that case.