Homeless services in Berkeley. Image: City of Berkeley
Homeless services in Berkeley can be confusing to navigate; the city has a place to streamline its offerings. Image: City of Berkeley

A new one-stop homelessness services shop is in the works in Berkeley.

Announced Tuesday night, the city is changing the way it funds programs offered in town, to prioritize the people with the highest needs, in line with a federal mandate to streamline services into a coordinated system.

The city is looking to create a central office where anyone seeking services will begin the process. Currently, there are too many entry points, as well as duplicative services and a mis-match between those who receive the highest level of assistance and those who needs it most, staff said Tuesday at a work session with the Berkeley City Council.

The city spends about $3 million a year on a range of programs. That is not set to change. But how the money is divvied up, and exactly which types of services receive money, will be different. Unlike the current system, programs will have to fit into set categories to qualify for city support.

In December, the city will seek applicants to run what’s been dubbed the Housing Crisis Resolution Center. At that time, agencies looking for homeless services-related money from the city will apply, either to run the center or to offer other types of programming. Berkeley’s annual budget for homeless services will have to cover the cost of the center as well as any other needs the city helps fund. Whatever the city decides will establish funding for the next two years.

Mayor Tom Bates said the city has many good programs, and credited local service providers with “doing God’s work in trying to help people day in and day out.” But he said there will likely be less money to go around as the new system is adopted, and that programs will need to shift from being generalists to specialists.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “People are going to have to change their mission.”

Berkeley's new approach to homeless services. Image: City of Berkeley
Berkeley’s new approach to homeless services. (Click to see an overview of the new plan, which was presented Tuesday.) Image: City of Berkeley
Berkeley’s new approach to homeless services. (Click to see an overview of the new plan, which was presented Tuesday.) Image: City of Berkeley

The new center — which Councilwoman Linda Maio said might better be designated “The Home Center” — would be the single entry point citywide for anyone seeking to escape homelessness. The idea would be to use a triage process to prioritize those with the highest need, and divert those who don’t fall into that category.

As it stands, “where people end up going can have a different result, not based on what they need but where they ended up showing up that day,” Kate Bristol told council Tuesday night. (Bristol is a consultant who helped study Berkeley’s current system and make recommendations for the new one.)

“Whether you actually get housed can actually just be a matter of chance,” she said.

Added Jane Micallef, director of Berkeley’s Health, Housing & Community Services Department: “Those who get those [permanent supportive housing] units aren’t necessarily the ones who need them most.”

The federal government now requires cities using HUD money to focus on the “chronically homeless,” as opposed to what’s previously been more of a first-come, first-served approach that staff said tended to benefit more highly functioning people who were able to navigate the complex system. The new approach will, as a result, involve more active outreach to the people who need the most help, staff said. That population can also be more challenging to work with, however.

“We do need to figure out ways of reaching people who are not coming in for services, and engage them out in the streets or wherever they are, even if they’re not coming inside,” Micallef told council.

Another change under HUD rules will be to shift away from providing certain types of services, with a move toward using that money to get people into some type of housing instead.

Read the full staff report from the work session.

Bristol told council that communities that have already adopted the more streamlined approach have been getting people into housing more quickly.

Even under the new system, however, the fact remains that there isn’t enough housing to go around.

“The homeless system cannot solve the housing crisis,” Micallef told council. “There simply aren’t enough resources in the homeless system to do that.”

To that end, she said the city does need to consider longterm strategies for building up its supply of affordable housing.

Overall, council members said they saw the new system as a positive step forward. Council members Darryl Moore and Jesse Arreguín noted that it appears to be in line with a move toward the “housing first” model that has reportedly worked well in other cities.

“You build the housing and put people in it, and then worry about giving them services,” Moore said. He said cities such as Los Angeles and Denver have seen great success with that approach, and have reported an “amazing drop” in a variety of problems as a result.

Councilman Max Anderson said he hoped one role at the new center would be an ombudsman for clients, who could listen to their concerns and help shepherd them through the process.

Council members Maio and Laurie Capitelli said they hoped the new center would be welcoming and inviting to those seeking shelter and services.

“One of the things we have to be cautious about in becoming efficient,” Capitelli said, “is not becoming inhumane or too mechanical.”

Representatives of two of the city’s largest providers of homelessness-related services said Wednesday that they too believe the new system will be an improvement for clients, though exactly how it will work — and what cuts or staffing changes it might require — remain to be seen.

“All the providers that were working on this, we all want a better experience for the people that come to us, to help them better … and do something that doesn’t create unnecessary barriers for people,” said Terrie Light, executive director of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. “I absolutely think it’s a good way forward.”

And Donald Frazier, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), said he believes a clearer, more unified system, with a coordinated approach to intake and assessment, will make it easier for those seeking help.

But both also said they are acutely aware that the issue of capacity will remain, as far as the need for services outstripping what is available.

“There are never enough dollars for programs and services to fulfill the need,” Frazier said. “But a coordinated system is beneficial in regards to identifying the needs of a person and ideally placing them in the right level of care. From my perspective, it’s a benefit.”

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Rodents, trash prompt city of Berkeley clean-up of homeless camp on Gilman (07.17.14)
City of Berkeley gives Gilman Street homeless a reprieve (07.10.14)
Caltrans fence forces homeless to find new camp (04.10.14)
Op-ed: Why oppose building new homes for the homeless? (11.18.13)
Berkeley considers ‘visionary’ homeless housing project (09.11.13)
City to consider new approach to emergency shelters (09.05.13)
Berkeley Food and Housing Project wins $1M grant (07.23.13)
Op-Ed: Berkeley needs a year-round youth shelter (05.30.13)
People’s Park focal point for countywide homeless count (02.01.13)
Berkeley moves toward a consensus homeless plan (01.31.13)
Op-ed: After Measure S failure, it’s time to act on homelessness (01.24.13)
Has it gotten harder to be homeless in Berkeley? (01.02.13)
Measure S: Will it help or hurt the homeless? (10.31.12)
Measure S Op-ed: We can do better with civil sidewalks (09.19.12)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...