Homeless people to see big changes in how they sleep, get food, get showers

Places that once served hot meals — and offered seconds — will now hand out boxed meals. Daytime drop-in services are being cut back because of COVID-19. It will also be harder to take a shower and do laundry.

Breakfast service at the Dorothy Day House-run Berkeley Community Resource Center on Thursday, March 19. Hot meals will stop Friday. Clients will get boxed meals and they will have to eat outside. Photo: Pete Rosos

Every day, about 125 people stop by the Berkeley Community Resource Center in the Veterans Memorial Building on Center Street to eat breakfast or lunch, charge their phones, do their laundry, take a shower or just chat.

Starting Friday, that routine — and the routine of many other homeless people — will change. Because of the threat of COVID-19 and the regional shelter-in-place order announced Monday, Berkeley has ordered homeless providers to stop serving hot meals and to limit social interaction.

The Dorothy Day House — which runs the BCRC, a daytime drop-in center, the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter, which opens in Old City Hall for as many as 30 people when it is rainy or cold, and the Dorothy Day House Shelter, which serves 57 people a night — will start serving boxed meals. Instead of coming inside, sitting down in a warm dining room, being served, and getting second, or even third helpings, people will now have to line up outside in the parking lot at 8:15 a.m. and come back at 12:30 p.m. for the second meal of the day.

“We have so many people coming together, it’s a high risk in the making,” said David Stegman, executive director of Dorothy Day House. “It’s going to be a dramatic impact on anyone who has been coming or anyone who wants to come, but these steps have to be taken.”


And the demand is higher than ever. During the past few days, ever since the city’s five library branches, four senior centers and a number of private churches have closed, the number of visitors has been climbing, said Robbi Montoya, Dorothy Day program manager.

One man, Joseph, said Thursday that although he was not a regular, he comes in for breakfast from time to time. He’s worried about the effect not being able to socialize normally will have at Dorothy Day House. Kenny, who was also eating breakfast, said he isn’t worried.

The Berkeley Food & Housing Project (BFHP), which works in conjunction with the Lutheran Church of the Cross, suspended meal service this week, said BFHP Calleene Egan, the executive director. Until then, the two organizations offered community meals Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 3:30-4:45 p.m. The church also offered a spaghetti meal on Wednesdays. The meals will resume next week – but only in boxes for taking away, she said.

The Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center on Acton Street shut briefly on Tuesday but has since reopened to limited service, said Leslie Berkler, executive director. Previously, women and their children could come into the house-like shelter during the day, hang out, read, recharge, get fed and meet with social service providers. About 40% of the clients slept at the women’s shelter on Dwight Way that’s run by BFHP, she said.

The living-room-like main room no longer has women and children lounging around, said Berkler. Women can come in one at a time for counseling. Hot lunches are gone. Instead, the Drop-in Center is handing out prepared food in take-out containers that the Alameda County Food Bank has given it, she said. People have to eat outside. Next week, the drop-in center will start delivering supplies to clients.


“Everyone is very stressed and confused,” Berkler said of her clients.

Many people living in the homeless encampments on the west side of Berkeley say they have a hard time getting downtown to take advantage of food services there. They are getting hungrier. People used to drop off bags of groceries, but those have declined since the threat of coronavirus emerged, said Andrea Henson, who works with community group Where Do We Go Berkeley?

Barbara Brust, who runs Consider the Homeless, a grassroots program to deliver services and hot soup to people in the west side encampments and on Shattuck Avenue on Thursdays and Sundays, is continuing to distribute food. In the last month, the organization, which usually distributes nine gallons of soup, has been running out, said Brust, who believes it reflects a rise in the number of homeless people living by Interstate 80.

Encampment resident Jake, in front of a common-use structure he calls the hovel alongside University Avenue, on March 18. Jake says about the only real inconvenience anyone at the encampment feels is the closure of the recycling center, a source of income for some encampment residents. Photo: Pete Rosos

Brust intends to distribute food Thursday night, she told Berkeleyside. Consider the Homeless is taking new precautions to not spread COVID-19, including using plastic gloves, distributing the soup in takeaway cups and frequently sanitizing the soup containers and interior of the vans, she said.

Brust and Henson say they are worried about how the shelter-in-place order has led to a drop in revenue for homeless people, which will lead to more people going hungry.


Many homeless individuals rely on selling bottles and cans to earn money. Berkeley has closed its recycling center, however, cutting off that revenue source, the organizers said. Henson said that, without money, many people won’t be able to buy propane and will resort to making fires.

Street Spirit News, the monthly newspaper that many homeless or poor people sell for $2 on street corners, won’t be distributed for the rest of March, Alastair Boone, the editor, announced on Twitter on Thursday. That also will take away an important source of revenue. The paper will make a decision about whether to print a paper in April soon, she said.

Shelters change their hours and set-up

The Dorothy Day Shelter and Berkeley Food & Housing have also made changes to the shelters they run. Both agencies have gone from part-time to full-time to protect clients from coronavirus. This means those who stay there won’t have to leave in the morning and return late in the afternoon.

“I am focused on keeping these clients together and creating a safe place to shelter in place,” said Egan.

BFHP runs a shelter on Dwight Way with a floor for men, a floor for women and a floor for veterans. The hours used to be from 4:30-7:30 a.m. It will now be open 24 hours a day.

Usually, the sleeping area in the Dorothy Day House Shelter in Veterans Memorial Hall is locked off for the day. Operators are opening it full-time in response to the COVID-19 threat. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Dorothy Day Shelter will also become a full-time shelter on Friday, said Stegman. During the day, residents will be able to hang out in the dining room, which will no longer be used by the people who dropped in for the day.

But the changes will also mean fewer services. About 80 people a day had been taking showers at the BCRC and about eight had been doing laundry, said Stegman. Starting Friday, people will have to line up outside to register to take a shower or do laundry the next day. Only 32 people will be able to shower each day and only six will get to do their laundry, said Stegman. The number of storage units available will drop from eight to six.


Montoya said she is concerned about what will happen when the daytime drop-in center closes and where those people will go to use the bathroom. She hopes Berkeley can increase the number of portable toilets in Civic Center Park.

“Those 125 people… where will they go? Likely across the street to the park,” she said. “What’s going to happen when people come to our door and say, ‘I just have to go to the bathroom.’ How am I going to say ‘no’ to someone? But I must.”