Opinion: With a new nuts-to-bolts drop-in center, Dorothy Day House is truly helping the homeless

After being homeless for over five years, I am no longer surprised by shabby treatment at shelters. The Berkeley Community Resource Center is a happy exception.

Ever since I arrived in Berkeley three years ago, previously living on the streets in New Orleans, Oakland and San Francisco, several shelters have disappointed me, particularly when I wanted to take a shower.

Until recently, there have only been two places in Berkeley for those without homes to take a shower. (A third mobile shower was just recently added.) One was in the locker area at the now-shuttered Willard Pool. The showers were in one large room with multiple shower-heads. Unfortunately, showering was awkward, not because you had to stand naked in one big room, but because you had to keep an eye on your backpack. Otherwise, everything you owned might not be there when your shower was over. You might not have any clothes to wear. Now that makes for a very awkward situation.

The other spot was in the shelter in the Veterans Building on Center Street that used to be run by BOSS (Building Opportunity for Self-Sufficiency). An experience I had there a few years ago completely turned me off.

BOSS had a three-hour window allotted for showers during the week. Typically, there were 15 to 25 people signing up for a shower each day. I went there multiple times to get on the list. Unfortunately, the person in charge had no managerial skills overseeing the showers. Among other things, he constantly allowed people he knew to cut in line, which in essence would push your chances for a shower out of the three-hour time window. And I might add he acted like a straight out ass.

Unfortunately at the time, I was not aware of the Willard Pool showers.

Well, after 13 days and many attempts to get a shower at BOSS, I reluctantly went to San Francisco to get a shower. After four hours of traveling round trip and four hours of waiting in line, I finally got a chance to shower. It was dark when I returned to Berkeley. Spending all day just to get a shower is not my idea of fun.

I only returned to what I term the “rat hole” — the shelter at the Veterans Building — when there were no other options and I really needed a shower.

After being homeless for over five years, I am no longer surprised by shabby treatment at shelters. I have come to expect minimum effort when it comes to assistance getting the basic homeless needs, such as qualifying for SSI/SSDI, EBT/food programs, health and mental services, etc.

Some shelters, like the ones I briefly stayed at in New Orleans, run like something between a boot camp and a prison. You must be inside the overnight shelter no later than 5 p.m. and you are not allowed to leave once you are in. You get dinner, a shower and a bunk. They wake you up at 4:30 a.m. with loud shouting, banging on beds, yells to get up and get out. By 5 a.m. you are walking out the door with a cup of lukewarm bitter coffee and a stale donut in your hand.

That’s not to say that all homeless shelters and services are the same. There are nicer ones, normally those sponsored by local churches and small nonprofit organizations. Most provide beds and serve dinner and breakfast. However, several of the ones I’ve stayed at also required you to sit through an hour of  a “praise God, hallelujah, soul-saving” service. After that, you are allowed to eat and get a shower and a bunk for the night. I will note I have not encountered this in Berkeley.

This is one of the reasons I prefer a piece of cardboard, my sleeping bag and a wide-open sky at night with a beautiful view of the stars.

However, I was recently informed that the Dorothy Day House of Berkeley had taken over the shelter at the Veterans Building formerly run by BOSS. That really piqued my interest. For years, the Dorothy Day House has been known for having the best breakfast in town. Serving food such as oatmeal, seven-grain cereal, grits, boiled eggs, bread, pastries, Peet’s coffee and scrambled eggs and bacon on Saturdays.

For those of us living solely on the streets, you get used to eating cold food left on park and bus benches or on top of city trash cans, dumpster diving as well as eating at feeds where the food is something you eat so as not to be hungry, rather than for taste. The Dorothy Day breakfast is definitely a real treat.

So I went to check out the center under its new management. It’s known as the Berkeley Community Resource Center. And not only did I find the same great breakfast (and an equally good lunch), I found myself treated exceptionally well.

It was at the first breakfast I attended that I met Robbi Montoya, a program manager. I inquired about what was involved to qualify for a bed at the shelter. I was actually just asking about it, not really thinking there was a chance to get a bed. Keep in mind most permanent shelters are full and have a waiting list. Sometimes it takes weeks to get a bed at these permanent shelters.

Montoya asked me about my current living circumstances (on the streets) and handed me an assessment form to fill out. She proceeded to check for space at the Dorothy Day shelter, which operates in the basement, but responded, “Sorry we are full.” This is a typical response, one I had grown used to hearing when applying for a bed in a permanent shelter.

Then Montoya did something I haven’t experienced before. She got on her computer and then made a phone call to the Bay Area Community Services. BACS operates Berkeley’s coordinated entry system for those experiencing homelessness.

Montoya told me she had reserved a bed at the shelter on Dwight Way for me and I had to be there by 5 p.m. I could not believe my ears — the same day I applied I was being placed in a transitional housing shelter program. This is virtually unheard of, or at least I have not come across it on my time on the streets.

I asked Montoya how was she able to make this happen.

“What we can do, we will do and if we are unable, we find those that can,” said Montoya.

Then I asked what other services the BCRC was offering. Wow, I was not expecting to hear that, in addition to the hot meals and shelter, the organization had, in effect, created a one-stop-shop. There are a series of activities, such as movie and popcorn day, free clothing and drug and alcohol counseling. But the big change is that organizations now come to the center to assist in qualifying individuals for SSI/SSDI, EBT/Cal fresh food programs, job training and placement assistance, among other programs. There are on-site washers and dryers. There are lockers in which people can store their stuff.

I thought to myself, at last, a common-sense approach to truly assist the homeless with these much-needed services.

Typically, those of us who are homeless and living on the streets are used to being bounced all over town with no transportation just to be given a form to take to another location in one of many steps for the basic necessities.

For people already physically worn down as well as mentally exhausted, this can be a difficult task, not to mention discouraging.

Now the Berkeley Community Resource Center is providing the homeless with a chance to get assistance with all these programs in one location.

Please be kind and remind your City Council representatives that programs such as this are vital for our homeless population. Help us get off the streets and get back in society.

Timothy Busby is a writer who currently lives on the streets in Berkeley.