Volunteer Betty Peters serves meals for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project.

By Rachel Gross

Margaret, a 52-year-old Bay Area native and a current resident of the North County Women’s Shelter in Berkeley, says she’s “new to being homeless.”

After divorcing an abusive husband, she has spent the past two years without a permanent home, sleeping at motels, on friends’ couches, in her car, on benches, and now, at the women’s shelter. But it’s a situation she would like to think of as temporary.

Margaret counts herself lucky. The shelter, part of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, has enough beds to accommodate 32 women, but has more than a hundred on its waiting list. She can stay there for one month while she works with a consultant to secure more permanent housing.

“I’m grateful to have this little bit of heaven,” she said.

Though she has previously stayed in another homeless shelter in San Leandro while employed as a U.S. census worker, Margaret said the Berkeley location was the first to show her individual attention, “mutual respect, and mutual vulnerability.”

They’ve also coordinated visits with a doctor to help her monitor her high blood pressure. In fact, Margaret says she’s noticed a dramatic improvement in her health, though she credits it to the three meals a day — including fresh fruit and vegetables — that the shelter provides.

Homeward Bound

The Berkeley Food and Housing Project is the largest homeless care provider in the East Bay, and includes the women’s shelter, a men’s shelter, a low-income housing residence on Russell Street and a daily meals program operating out of Trinity Church on Bancroft Way. Though one of its aims is to address its clients’ immediate needs for food and shelter, the main goal is to find them permanent homes, said the project’s associate director, Geoffrey Green.

“Everyone who walks in this door, we’re going to ask them, ‘How can we help you get off the streets and into a house?’” he said.

Over the past three years, the project has helped more than 500 individuals like Margaret transition to permanent housing, including the 21 who live at the Russell Street residence — more than any other program in the county. Of course, it still has a long way to go.

“We’re pretty pleased with ourselves, but it’s a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of thing,” Green said.

The city has supported Berkeley Food and Housing’s mission both financially and philosophically almost since its inception, according to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. For 2009-10, the city selected the program to distribute an $850,000 federal grant for rapid re-housing.

Thanks to the grant, when Margaret secures housing, the project will cover her first security deposit and one month’s rent. A consultant will also help her search for employment and create a monthly budget so she can live stably without having to return to the shelter — or worse, the streets.

“I don’t want to let them down. I don’t,” she said.

Unlikely Origins

The program got its start serving a very different population — in true Berkeley fashion.

During the first “Summer of Love” in 1969, the First Baptist Church of Berkeley started offering up impromptu meals out of its basement to traveling youths drawn to the Telegraph Avenue scene and the growing Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. The program was solidified when the University Lutheran Chapel joined the effort the following year.

Dale Edmunson, a nearby pastor in Pleasant Hill who later came to the First Baptist Church, said the first meals program was an immediate reaction to the wave of hungry new Berkeley dwellers.

“Neither was thinking of this as the beginning of anything permanent,” he said. “It was just responding to a need.”

Dr. Edmunson led the church from 1979 to 1990. By 1979, the clientele had changed into largely what it is now — older, often chronically homeless, many with a history of mental illness. The program began serving its signature “Quarter Meal,” charging 25 cents for a hot meal to those who could afford it.

In 1990, Dr. Edmunson left to preach in Minneapolis. By the time he returned to the Bay and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project in 1999, the program had shifted its focus from meals to housing, and in 2002, it acquired the Russell Street residence.

“It had gone from a band-aid, addressing the symptoms of homelessness — namely seeing that people were fed — to addressing the basic issues which had caused this need,” Dr. Edmunson, now retired, said.

Changing Times

The program celebrates its 40th anniversary this year (ABC7 News aired a shout-out last month). But with their success come new challenges.

Out of its $3 million annual budget, the project’s largest funding source is the city of Berkeley, which contributes about $800,000 according to Green. But their city funding was reduced by 3 per cent — part of an across-the-board cut — in the 2010 budget.

The program also lost about $30,000 in state funding last year when California State Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed millions of dollars in domestic violence funding, he said. (More than 95 per cent of residents at the women’s shelter have experienced some kind of domestic abuse, said Kendra Lewis, the shelter coordinator.)

In addition, while the men’s shelter in the downtown Veteran’s building is no longer seismically safe, program leaders do not yet have the funds to relocate it.

Still, compared to cuts experienced by similar programs, “we’ve been really lucky,” Green said. Paul Cwynar, the project’s development director, said they’ve been able to make reductions without noticeably cutting meals or services.

Despite — or perhaps owing to — the fact that times are tighter, the program has been seeing an influx in visitors, according to Cwynar. He said far more individuals have been seeking meals since the start of the economic recession about a year and a half ago.

Seventy-one-year-old Betty Peters, who has volunteered at the meals program for a decade, concurred. Although the faces change, she said she has been serving a longer line of hungry clients.

“Some come and go, and some come and go and come again,” she said. “But there’s a definite need for feeding.”

The project has also responded to an upswing in families seeking meals and shelter, marking a change in demographics, according to Cwynar. A 2003-2009 survey by the Alameda County EveryOne Home program supported the trend, finding an increase in homeless individuals with dependent children, from 94 to 125.

“This is the new face of homelessness,” Cwynar said. “It’s no longer just the single adult male who’s out there. You’re seeing more women, and more women with children.”

The women’s shelter on Dwight Way.
The women’s shelter on Dwight Way.

One of those women is Alisha (not her real name), 41, who is staying at the women’s shelter with her four-year-old daughter after leaving her home and abusive marriage in Alameda County.

The now-single mother takes the bus every day to her telemarketer job in Oakland. Unlike Margaret, her situation qualifies her to move to the transitional housing program for domestic violence recovery upstairs, where she can stay for at least six months in exchange for a third of her income.

While she’d rather not be staying at a shelter in the first place, Alisha said the staff’s support and the program’s transitional services have proved invaluable.

“My daughter gets along with everyone, I get along with them. I talk to them like they’re my family,” she said. “I’m comfortable here.”

A History of Homelessness

Since the days of the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley has often been considered somewhat of a homeless mecca.

The reality, of course, is more nuanced. Residents of the city confront (or avoid) the plight of homelessness daily, whether in the form of the friendly greeting, the shouted confrontation or the ubiquitous plea for change.

In a phone interview, Mayor Bates said the homeless are drawn to Berkeley for its fair weather and “liberal, caring community.”

But that welcoming attitude has not gone unquestioned. In 2009, two national nonprofit organizations named Berkeley one of the top ten “meanest cities” (Los Angeles was number one), while some point to the city’s 2007 Public Commons for Everyone Initiative as the end of the city’s status as a haven for the un-housed. The initiative expanded many homeless services, but also banned smoking in many areas of the city, made it easier to enforce the state ban on public lodging and broadened the ban on lying on sidewalks during the day.

According to the Everyone Home survey, Berkeley is home to the majority of the county’s long-term and mentally or physically disabled homeless population, which Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, the city’s public information officer, said creates particular difficulties for the city. In total, there were 680 “literally homeless” individuals in Berkeley — those sleeping on the street, in shelters or in transitional housing programs — in 2009.

City officials emphasized Berkeley’s diverse array of services for the homeless, which are compiled here. In 2009, Berkeley spent $3.4 million on 23 city-funded homeless care providers, including the Berkeley Host Ambassador Program, which was implemented as part of the commons initiative in 2007. Ambassadors, who typically have been homeless themselves at one time, patrol the streets and ask individuals if they need help locating services, using maps or other assistance.

“We spend more money working with the homeless population than practically any other city,”  Mayor Bates said. “It’s a great place to be if you’re homeless.”

Berkeley Food and Housing, he added, has been “a really solid organization” and an example of how the city helps its homeless get back on their feet.

The program will celebrate its anniversary with a series of community events in November. Forty years after its founding, program leaders say they still treat their clients as individuals with the potential to achieve a stable home and life.

“They’re homeless residents — but they’re still residents of Berkeley,” Cwynar said.

To donate to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, email Joanna Lavenberg or phone 510-809-8512. To serve meals as a volunteer, e-mail Elaine Chang

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