Volunteers from Night on the Streets Catholic Worker serve food to the homeless. Photo: Matt Werner
Volunteers from Night on the Streets Catholic Worker serve food to the homeless. Photo: Matt Werner

Berkeley’s homeless population will now have more places to take shelter from the inclement weather after city officials directed extra funds to extend and expand shelter and outreach services.

The city has committed to opening a new overnight emergency shelter at the North Berkeley Senior Center and is working to expand the hours at two daytime drop-in centers, according to Councilwoman Linda Maio, who worked with an ad hoc group of homeless advocates in recent days to develop the plan (the updated list of city homeless services is here).

The extra effort means that there will be beds available the next few nights, including Christmas, according to JC Orton of Night on the Streets Catholic Worker, which runs a shelter during inclement weather. The First Congregational Church has agreed to open its doors on Christmas night, which it had not originally planned to do, said Orton. Berkeley is also opening the North Berkeley Senior Center tonight and Sunday for people to sleep in.

“The city came to the rescue,” said Orton. “The First Congregational Church came to the rescue.” 

Councilwoman Linda Maio. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Councilwoman Linda Maio. Photo: Emilie Raguso

During the last few days, Maio has been working with the city manager’s office and a group of homeless advocates to address the gap in city homeless services. The weather has already been rainy and cold and El Nino promises to make the next few months miserable, said Maio. She said she felt an increased sense of urgency after she heard that one overnight shelter was already operating over capacity.

Until recently, homeless people didn’t always have a place to go to during the day when it was rainy, according to Maio. The MASC (Multi-Agency Service Center)  drop-in center at 1931 Center Street was only open from 9 a.m. to noon and it was closed on weekends. The women’s shelter on Dwight Way, run by the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, wasn’t open at all during the day. The youth shelter was also closed, she said.

Now Berkeley will pay for the women’s and men’s shelters to be open during the day, said Maio. Sally Hindman, the director of Youth Spirit Artworks, which works with homeless youth, is also asking Berkeley to pay for a shuttle to bring youth from the YEAH shelter in the morning to Youth Spirit Artworks, and to open the program on weekends and from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.during the week, said Hindman. (It currently opens at 12:30 p.m.) Hindman says donors have committed to matching any funds donated by the city.

Berkeley Food and Homeless Project also runs a 65-bed shelter for men at Veterans’ Hall but that shelter is almost always full, according to Terrie Light, its executive director. During bad weather, Orton runs another 65-bed emergency shelter for Berkeley at the First Congregational Church, but it has been over capacity in recent days, said Maio. That shelter often couldn’t open until after 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., after programs at the church were finished. It also wasn’t available on Saturday nights. The new shelter at the senior center should address some of those gaps, as well as providing an additional 65 beds, said Maio.

“We’re going to create a 24/7 warmth center program,” said Hindman. “There will be seamless services so homeless people will not need to be outside… during El Nino.”

Along with Hindman and Orton, Maio also worked with Elliot Halpern and Igor Tregub, as well as staff from the city manager’s office, she said.

So far, it does not look  very expensive to close the gaps in the services, said Maio, who said she thinks it will cost around $50,000.

Maio was one of a group of council members who successfully pushed recently to pass new laws restricting how much room homeless people could take up on city sidewalks, and how long they could leave their shopping carts in commercial districts. She said she did not think her role in restricting homeless behavior and helping them find a dry space during the winter months was contradictory.

Other council members have also been pushing to expand city services. Jesse Arreguín has been trying for months to get the council to address his recommendations for expanded services, but the measure has been delayed repeatedly. Kriss Worthington wanted the council to declare a state of emergency for the homeless, but that measure was also put off.

Maio said she talked to the city manager about declaring a state of emergency. While she didn’t dismiss that idea, she said it would only allow the city to bypass zoning regulations to institute services for the homeless. It wouldn’t necessarily bring in more money.

“We are putting our energy into doing the things we can do right away, that are in our power and our authority,” said Maio. “We really have to act.”

Homeless man plans community carol sing-along (12.18.15)
Berkeley volunteer redefines good samaritanism (04.24.14)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...