Executive director boona cheema reviews paperwork with a member of BOSS’s Community Organizing Team. Photos: Natalie Orenstein
Executive director boona cheema reviews paperwork with a member of BOSS’s Community Organizing Team. Photos: Natalie Orenstein

The multi-pronged approach to combating homelessness at Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) is based on the belief that society knows what works, but rarely implements it.

“Good healthcare works, good education works, getting people help the first time they struggle works,” said boona cheema [sic], the Bay Area organization’s longtime executive director. “Being kind and compassionate so people see that you really care—that works, and motivates people.”

In 1971, as a recent immigrant from India with little money in her pocket and a baby on the way, cheema knocked on six-month-old BOSS’s door to ask for help. Two years later, she became its fourth director, and is now preparing to leave her job to make time for creative pursuits.

Over the past 42 years, cheema—a self-proclaimed “builder and dreamer”—has overseen an expansion of BOSS into a network of short-term shelters, long-term transitional houses, mental health and substance abuse support systems, classes, daycares, and career training programs that serve 1,500 people. The largest facility is the Ursula Sherman Village on Harrison Street in Berkeley, which houses more than 100 individuals and families.

Though the economic climate has fluctuated during cheema’s many decades on the job, she believes the services provided to the homeless have been consistently insufficient. Berkeley’s latest homeless count in 2009 found a 17% decrease in homelessness in the city since 2003, but still counted 680 people without permanent housing.

“People wonder why people are on the streets or why there is drug addiction,” cheema said. “We don’t have the level of services in Alameda County that are needed to really respond to the needs of the community.”

In addition to BOSS, there is a men’s shelter and a women’s shelter with 30-50 beds apiece in Berkeley, and a youth emergency shelter open half the year.

Part of what sets BOSS apart from the other shelters is its incorporation of a social justice component, cheema said. It’s one of the four facets of BOSS’s program (the others are housing, health, and income) that cheema says are interconnected and crucial for helping homeless become self-sufficient. The recipients of BOSS’s services are involved in campaigns, and can opt to take a social justice class or sit on the stipended community organizing team.

The campaign against the ban on sitting on sidewalks in commercial areas in Berkeley is a particularly pertinent one for BOSS, cheema said. Until it was placed on the November ballot last month, BOSS participants and staff spoke at city council meetings, and are now discussing ways to move forward.

An intern discusses public speaking strategies with the social justice class. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“What’s going to be effective is talking to businesses and asking if they’re willing to put up signs in their widows. Seventy have agreed to do so already,” cheema said. “[The other side] has money and that’s what’s so unfair about it. We’re going to have to depend on $5 or $10 donations. Ours is the poor people’s PAC.

Jack McInis, a member of the social justice class, has lived at the Harrison Street facility for four months and used various BOSS services for five years. He said BOSS’s emphasis on activism is a natural one, because the homeless are affected by systemic inequality.

“There are a lot of things that need to be addressed in our society. I have a background in some of the things they’re talking about and participating in actions, but I kind of let that lapse through my own difficulties,” said McInis, who was living on the streets and suffering from severe alcoholism when he got involved with BOSS.

Though he admitted the facility may not provide the “optimal” living situation, McInis said, “This place in particular is not just a shelter. They pretty much give you all the tools you need to get to where you want to be, if you just avail yourself of those things.”

Cheema spoke of this two-way street as well. Treating program participants with compassion and respect is vital to helping the homeless navigate employment and housing, but the homeless need to take the initiative in seeking help, she said.

“When you respond when someone asks for help in a way that’s caring, you’ve got them,” cheema said. “I think what I’m most proud of is how close I am to homeless people and how much they trust me. I’ve made a lot of good friends who’ve experienced real hardships over and over again. I get teased—people say, ‘Someone who does your kind of work needs to know a lot of rich people.’ Well I know a few, but it’s also very important to know really poor people.”

A major focus of the program is training on developing interdependent relationship with peers. Family activities, and classes on financial literacy and parenting are some of the many programs designed to facilitate community engagement.

An average stay for those living in the Village’s dormitory-style housing is 4-6 months. Those in transitional housing get individual residencies and stay a year or more. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
An average stay for those living in the Village’s dormitory-style housing is 4-6 months. Those in transitional housing get individual residencies and stay a year or more. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“The goal would be that when they move into their own housing, they get that same natural support network in their own community—that you have people expecting you to show up to things, whether it’s church, or the gym, or a 12-step program,” said Mary Carl, a BOSS program coordinator. “It’s about trying to develop healthy interdependency in a time when our society pushes for independence.”

Funding for BOSS’s comprehensive curriculum comes mostly from the government, but donations are vital, cheema said.

To that end, the organization is holding its second “Chip Shots to Change Lives” tournament fundraiser in Tilden Park on Aug. 17. One round costs $100, and a foursome ticket is $375, and everyone has a chance to win prizes. Those uninterested in spending a day on the course can pay $35 for a Hawaiian-themed banquet prepared by Tilden’s new chef.

Last year’s event saw 70 donors and raked in about $15,000, said fundraising chair Roman Fan. This year they’re expecting as much or more, and tickets are available on the BOSS website up until the tournament. Berkeleyside is a sponsor of the event.

“This is a major fundraiser for us,” Fan said. “People in Berkeley don’t want people to sit in the streets? Let’s find them houses.”

For more information on the Aug. 17 golf fundraiser, visit the BOSS website.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...