Call takers at The Hub field inquiries about shelter beds, housing and other issues as part of a process to determine who is most in need. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Call takers at The Hub field inquiries about shelter beds, housing and other issues as part of a process to determine who is most in need. Photo: Emilie Raguso

It used to be that those who were homeless in Berkeley had to navigate a complex tangle of services to try to find help. In January, the city launched what it hopes will be a coordinated, collaborative system designed to provide permanent housing to those who need it most and collect data to create a better overall picture of who is seeking aid in the city.

One doorway. One phone number. Whichever path you take, the vision is that your request will help you get the help you need, especially if your needs are significant and your barriers to helping yourself are high. That’s not to say everyone will get shelter. Many won’t. But, for those who don’t, the pathway to access other assistance offered in Berkeley could look a lot less confusing.

See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project.

Welcome to The Hub. The official name is the Coordinated Entry System. It’s also been called the Housing Crisis Resolution Center, or the HCRC.

Whatever you call it, don’t call it a “new program,” said Sharon Hawkins Leyden, director of client services at The Hub. Think of it, she said, as massive system change.

“I’ve never seen such cooperation in my 30 years. It’s like the ship is really turning,” she said. “It feels like it has the potential to really help people in a really different way.”

Leyden should know. A licensed social worker, she’s been in the field for three decades. Nearly 15 years ago, she helped found YEAH! (pronounced “yay”), a well-respected non-profit in Berkeley focused on young adults who are homeless. She now works at Berkeley Food & Housing Project, which won the city contract last year to run its streamlined approach to homelessness.

It’s just a pilot effort but, already this year, as a result of its work, 17 chronically homeless people have either been housed or are on a track toward permanent housing, according to the city. Sixty-two people have enrolled in permanent case management. At the current funding level, there is room for 100 people to receive intensive services.

One of the people housed this year was a 62-year-old woman who had been homeless in Alameda County for 15 years. She arrived at The Hub on its first day of operation, Jan. 5, and began to ask for help. (Her name was not released because of confidentiality laws.) Over the years, she has struggled to overcome mental illness, significant physical injuries and a history of substance abuse. After working with The Hub, she moved into her own studio in a low-income senior housing complex April 1.

Another success story is a 45-year-old woman who works for the Berkeley Unified School District. She had been sleeping in her car and in a friend’s garage when she connected with The Hub. After struggling with alcohol abuse and depression, gaps in employment and other issues, she became homeless because of an eviction. The Hub worked to help her find a home and deal with the emotional and logistical challenges that arose in the new setting.

And, last week, city staff said they were hopeful about a new potential client: A man who has been homeless in Berkeley for three years who finally agreed to accept help to get off the street.

The goal: Serving the most vulnerable

The cozy waiting area at The Hub includes information about its approach to housing. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The cozy waiting area at The Hub includes information about its approach to housing. Photo: Emilie Raguso

High ceilings and exposed brick greet those who walk into The Hub, at 1901 Fairview St. in South Berkeley. Paintings of flowers hang on the walls and plants are set up around the reception area. The modern, professional atmosphere is intentional, meant to reassure potential clients and help them feel welcome, said Leyden.

Center staff do an intake and screening to find out about client needs to try to match them to the right services, whether that’s some kind of shelter, drug and alcohol treatment, help finding a job or assistance connecting with Social Security benefits. Those found to have the highest need are given access to a small team that includes a case manager as well as a “housing specialist,” whose sole job is to advocate with landlords until an appropriate unit can be made available.

In addition to fielding calls and walk-ins, case managers and intake workers go out into the field to seek out those who need help but might not be asking for it on their own.

Under the new system, someone could get into a shelter bed within 24-48 hours. And, unlike in the past, there are no limits on length of shelter stays in Berkeley. They could go from having lived on the street for years to being in their own apartment in just three weeks, Leyden said. Part of the reason the process can move so quickly is that the intensive screening means that, as soon as shelter becomes available, Hub staff know exactly who is eligible and can reach out.

“I’ve already seen some of our most vulnerable citizens getting the help and support they need,” she said. “And every month more and more people are getting housed.”

Housing director Lee leaves the Civic Center building after a long day. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Housing manager Lee leaves the Civic Center building after a long day. Photo: Emilie Raguso

It’s a collaborative effort officially overseen by the city of Berkeley and run, on contract, by Berkeley Food & Housing Project in partnership with a long list of local service providers including BOSS, the Homeless Action Center, Options Recovery Services, YEAH! and more.

According to the first five months of data, Hub staff had about 3,600 contacts from the community, the vast majority of which came in by phone and likely included some repeat calls or visits from the same people. Staff completed about 850 intakes, 513 of which were identified as Berkeley residents. Of the 490 people identified as chronically homeless, 322 were Berkeley residents.

Drilling down further, 161 people were classified as “high needs,” including 118 who live in Berkeley. It’s the individuals in this final group The Hub is designed to direct most of its resources toward. To end up in that group, you must have been chronically and literally homeless — not couch-surfing or staying with friends, for example — and be disabled or have some other kind of significant need. Seniors, people with children and transition-aged youth (aged 18-25) can potentially be eligible.

There are more than 200 people in this “high needs” category on Berkeley’s streets according to data from the January 2015 homeless count.

The system has already changed the way resources are allocated in Berkeley. Before Jan. 5, when The Hub opened its doors, 40% of Berkeley’s shelter beds were being used by people who didn’t meet the guidelines for being “literally homeless.” Under the new system, staff must verify actual homelessness before placing someone in a shelter. Those placed in shelter beds get connected with a team that includes a case manager and a housing specialist. And, if they decide to leave the shelter for some reason, they can continue to work with their team.

A lot of the clients, Leyden said, are older people who’ve been on the streets for years and didn’t have a system they could readily access for help.

“They couldn’t walk in, they wouldn’t go into a shelter. They just sort of stayed out there on their own,” she said. “We’re serving people who are the hardest to serve, the poorest and most vulnerable.”

Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council voted to add $360,000 in support service funding to the existing allocation of $853,600 for The Hub in the next fiscal year, along with another new allocation of $150,000 to help people who are recently homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, to cover rent and security deposits. (Council also voted to allocate $200,000 to YEAH! so it could expand its shelter program to operate year-round, and $50,000 to help launch a program that would offer locked bins to the homeless for their possessions.)

Historically, the city has spent about $3 million each year on services related to ending homelessness.

A systematic, coordinated approach

The Hub is located inside the Berkeley Food & Housing Project headquarters on Fairview. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The Hub is located inside Berkeley Food & Housing Project headquarters on Fairview. Photo: Emilie Raguso

One of the benefits of the new system, said Leyden, is that even those who don’t ultimately get a case manager at The Hub can get diverted into other types of support, and learn how to access other programs, housing workshops and other resources. Everyone who goes through intake becomes part of the pool, meaning that, for the first time, the city has a unified database of those who need help. Rather than a static list based on a first-come, first-served approach, the pool is fluid and dynamic.

Those who don’t score high enough on the scale, Leyden added, are told why, which allows them to return with further documentation and other information to make sure Hub staffers have an accurate picture of their need level. The effort, for some, can be a shift from the old system, which might have encouraged people to hide certain problems to appear more eligible for aid.

To some extent, it has flipped the former approach on its head. In the past, those who were able to show up at a service provider and advocate for themselves were most likely to receive help. Services were spread around rather haphazardly, and spread rather thin: There was no centralized system to keep track of the overall population or avoid duplicated efforts. Now, there’s an extensive screening process that requires documentation to prove level of need. Berkeley residency or other ties to the community, such as family, school or work, is another factor that comes into play.

The HUD approach recognizes that the need for services and housing far outstrips what’s available, and requires agencies to use a methodical system to allocate larger chunks of money to fewer people.

“The HUD mandate says the right thing to do is to start with the people who can’t help themselves,” Leyden said. “We’re talking about people that, without help, will never get off the street and will die on our streets. And are dying on our streets.”

Leyden said the system is to a certain extent modeled after efforts in the past year that have worked to begin to eradicate homelessness among veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs made extensive resources available for rapid re-housing, permanent housing and other services to help get vets off the street.

She said the systematic, coordinated, harm-reduction “housing first” approach has been working. The number of homeless veterans has been decreasing all over the country. Some jurisdictions are reporting that population has dropped to zero. In Berkeley, there’s been an estimated 40% decrease in the population since 2009, according to data presented to council in January.

“Everywhere is getting closer,” said Leyden. “And that’s something that nobody thought we could do.”

Housing manager: “Jumping into the deep end”

By Ted Friedman
The increasing homeless population is the result of “a broken social compact” says Kristen Lee, manager of the city’s housing services. Photo: Ted Friedman

Efforts like The Hub have become increasingly important as homeless population estimates in Berkeley and elsewhere in the Bay Area have seen significant increases in recent years. According to data collected last year on a single day in January, out of more than 4,000 people estimated to be homeless in Alameda County, 834 were living in Berkeley.

That was a 23% jump from the prior count in Berkeley in 2009. The number of unsheltered individuals — those sleeping on the street, in cars or in other places not fit for human habitation — jumped 53%. And some service providers told Berkeleyside this week they believe the 834 figure underestimates the actual population by at least 25%.

It’s not that Berkeley has become more of a magnet for homeless individuals from other places, Leyden said. It’s primarily that more people in this community have become vulnerable to losing their homes or fallen victim to bouts of homelessness. More people are living on the edge of poverty, paycheck to paycheck, where a car breakdown can lead to a lost job, which can mean losing one’s home. Many of the people the city has been working with through The Hub have been in the area for years and are well-known to area service providers, she said.

“The homeless system is picking up pieces from a broken social safety net,” said Housing & Community Services manager Kristen Lee for the city of Berkeley. She said Oakland saw a 47% increase in its homeless population according to last year’s data, and that cities elsewhere in the nation have also seen growth. “It’s part of a broken social compact. We’re the end of the road and we’re just trying to deal with the onslaught and we’re not alone.”

Berkeley is also not alone, nationally, in creating a coordinated system that triages the neediest people to get them into housing. It is, however, the first broad-based “hub” in Alameda County to take the approach. (Oakland has a more focused program, the Family Front Door, that targets families to help them get off the street.)

Nationally, the system change has been driven by a 2014 federal mandate that ties housing dollars from HUD to jurisdictions that coordinate and collaborate their services, and directs them to those deemed most in need. Later this year, Alameda County’s EveryOne Home organization is looking at creating a network of seven hubs to help tackle the problem.

But, for now, Berkeley is to a certain extent on its own working out the kinks in the new system.

“It’s been a good process and challenging,” said Lee, the city housing manager. “We’re creating something that’s the first of its kind in the county. We have had to kind of start from scratch. We’re kind of jumping into the deep end and doing it.”

There’s a lot of optimism about the approach, though everyone Berkeleyside interviewed also acknowledged it’s a work in progress. Some service providers in Berkeley say they do have concerns, and are hopeful the city will listen and learn going forward.

The reception area at The Hub is bright and welcoming. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The reception area at The Hub is bright and welcoming. Photo: Emilie Raguso

One of the organizations in Berkeley that’s linked up with The Hub is Options Recovery Services, which focuses on helping people overcome addiction to get their lives back on track. Options has nine houses in Berkeley and North Oakland, with space for approximately 160 people. It’s transitional housing, meaning people who live there must participate in programs and services designed to help them develop skills that will help them become stable and independent.

Under the current agreement, five of Options’ beds are assigned through The Hub. Tom Gorham, executive director of Options, said the partnership has exceeded his expectations. He said several people referred to Options by The Hub had already moved through the program into employment and more permanent housing.

“It’s worked tremendously well, which is kind of a minor shock to me,” he said. Gorham lauded Hub staff for being easy for his agency’s case managers to work with, and professional. “I think both sides have really stretched to make it work, to make it seamless where the client doesn’t get dropped in the middle.”

He said the main question for him going forward is whether the city will be able to come up with enough resources to meet the actual need. His agency could handle up to 20 referrals from The Hub comfortably, compared to the current five.

“The city has sunk a lot of money into The Hub. That’s a great thing,” he said. “How are they going to continue the success? What do we do when the money runs out?”

A homeless man rests in the shade on the steps of the Veterans Building in Berkeley, where Options Recovery is located. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A homeless man rests in the shade on the steps of the Veterans Building in Berkeley, where Options Recovery is located. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Gorham and other service providers said it will be critical for the city to continue offering financial support to programs that are already working in Berkeley.

Donald Frazier, who runs BOSS — Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency — said he believes in the mission of The Hub, but said it can only work if it’s part of a thriving local network.

“It’s OK if there’s a Hub, but it needs to be connected to something,” he said. “How do we connect The Hub to the community?”

Frazier said the logistics of the coordination and collaboration are still being worked out. He said he hopes the city is serious about listening to the needs and concerns of existing service providers, and can support them robustly going forward.

He said another open question from his perspective is how to help those who don’t qualify for assistance at The Hub: The people who used to walk in off the streets, or people simply on the streets who aren’t even trying to access services.

Now, when people walk into BOSS, he said, he has to refer them to The Hub, according to the terms of the agency’s contract with the city. If they don’t rate high enough on the need scale, they don’t get a case manager and are, instead, referred to Alameda County’s 211 community service system. Sometimes, 211 just refers people back to BOSS, which then has to turn people back to The Hub. It can lead to frustration and increased obstacles rather than prompt help.

“More needs to be done,” he said. “I think we need to think larger.”

This mural, by local activist and attorney Osha Neumann, was installed inside the Homeless Action Center earlier this month. Photo: Emilie Raguso
This mural, by local activist and attorney Osha Neumann, was installed inside the Homeless Action Center earlier this month. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Over at the Homeless Action Center, executive director Pattie Wall and Meghan Pluimer, the organization’s managing attorney, said they had been excited about having a coordinated entry point in Berkeley where staff could send people looking for housing. HAC works to connect the homeless and mentally ill with Social Security benefits and other legal services, but isn’t in a position to get people into shelter itself.

But they said there are a number of issues that still need to be worked out. First, they said, they are concerned about all the people who don’t qualify high enough on the rating scale to be linked up with case management. Because the HUD rules require that the most resources to go to the people with the highest need, that means many people won’t get housed. The most intensive services aren’t available to people who may be sleeping on a couch or staying with a friend or relative.

“To us, ‘homeless’ is not having a stable place,” said Pluimer. “A lot of our clients are not ‘literally homeless.’ They’re not going to get help from The Hub.”

Wall said there has also been a drastic reduction this year in referrals to HAC, meaning fewer people are getting served. In the past, HAC could take referrals from any service provider in Berkeley. Now, under the current agreement, it can only get them through The Hub. Wall said, over the past 15 years, the contract from the city has always been maxed out.

“Now we have slots open that we can’t fill by ourselves,” she said. “It’s terribly, terribly wasteful.”

Wall and Pluimer said they’ve been assured the situation is temporary and that, once The Hub is running full force, there will be more referrals coming in.

They said it may also be tough to get clients on board with going through The Hub. People struggling with homelessness may be skeptical of going to a new location or sharing their stories with a new agency if they have already built up a rapport with another one.

“They just won’t go,” said Wall.

Several homeless people play chess outside McDonald's, a popular gathering spot. It's reportedly one of the few businesses downtown that allows access by the public to its restrooms. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Several homeless people play chess outside McDonald’s, a popular gathering spot. It’s reportedly one of the few businesses downtown that allows access by the public to its restrooms. Photo: Emilie Raguso

But they acknowledged that The Hub’s efforts to track data about homelessness in Berkeley could be helpful down the line: to understand the size and needs of the population more accurately and leverage more money going forward to help serve it.

All of the service providers, including Leyden at The Hub, agree that the real problem and bottleneck is that there simply is not enough affordable housing in the Bay Area, let alone in Berkeley.

Wall noted that even those lucky enough to get “shelter plus care” vouchers — including those passed out by The Hub — don’t come close to paying for market-rate apartments. The vouchers, she said, are worth $1,300, while an apartment in Berkeley might cost at least $1,800. So even the people described as “on track” for housing through The Hub may not actually be housed, said Pluimer.

“That’s not on them,” said Wall, about The Hub. “That’s the economy. Places that were affordable with a voucher last year are not affordable this year, even substandard places that are crummy and rundown.”

She continued: “We came up with a plan, and one of the outcomes of the plan is that we’re going to have a sophisticated list of who is the most vulnerable, who needs housing the most. But it’s not like we can say to people: ‘You score 100% on the vulnerability scale, here’s some housing.’ Those two things didn’t arrive together.”

Wall said the process had been somewhat frustrating.

“It’s rearranging the deck chairs,” she said. “Unless we’re really pumping resources into the system to make housing affordable or available to people who are low income, we’re not changing anything.”

Housing manager Lee said it’s too soon to say for sure how well The Hub is working. But she said Berkeley now has data to show it’s putting resources toward the people — at least among those who have been contacted by the city — who show the highest need.

Lee said the network of local service providers is also working together more closely. It had its first ever joint meeting earlier this month to discuss client needs, potential overlap in care and opportunities to improve. The plan is to meet twice a month going forward.

“That in and of itself is pretty huge,” Lee said.

Leyden, at The Hub, said it’s definitely a transitional time that is requiring service providers — not just clients — to make adjustments and change their way of thinking. But she said she believes the trepidation from other agencies has dropped significantly over the course of the year.

“People have created silos. People have created their own organizations. Now we are saying: We have a system and everybody has to join in and believe in the system,” she said. “Everybody has the same goal: To help people who are homeless get housed. They’re beginning to realize this system is going to help their clients. And people are really stepping up all over the city.”

Leyden also cautioned that the effort is just beginning and said everyone will have to adjust again once the county sets up its own seven-hub system. Berkeley could be one of those hubs but it will have to apply along with everyone else.

But, for the first time in a long time, she said, she believes there might actually be a solution to ending homelessness, at least for some.

“You hear their stories and you think, how in the world can you solve this?” she said. “But you get someone inside, get them in an environment that is safe, and then you begin the long hard work of helping people recover their lives.”

Leyden continued: “For some people, help is on the way. It really feels like that.”


HOURS: Walk-ins and phone calls are welcome weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m.
LOCATION: 1901 Fairview St., Berkeley, CA 94703 (at Adeline Street)
PHONE: ­866-­960-­2132
SHELTER BEDS: Those looking for emergency one-night shelter can call the number above weekdays from 7-8 p.m. Weekends, call from 2-3 p.m. or from 7-8 p.m. for a two-night emergency bed. (There are no walk-in hours on the weekends.)
ONLINE: Learn more about Berkeley Food & Housing Project and The Hub

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See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project. Read more about homelessness in Berkeley. This story is part of the Bay Area-wide initiative to document homeless issues. This endeavor, The San Francisco Homeless Project, includes 70 media organizations. Connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.

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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...