Update, Jan. 17, 6:41 p.m. Authorities have tentatively identified the woman who was found dead Saturday in Berkeley as 55-year-old Laura Jadwin. Berkeley Police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Frankel said BPD has ruled out foul play and listed the fatality as an unattended death. The coroner’s office has not yet made a ruling on the official cause of death, he said Tuesday evening.
Original story, Jan. 15, 12:36 p.m. When Tom White went to check out his property at 2214 Martin Luther King Jr. Way around 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, he walked past the small building that used to hold the Berkeley Bail Bonds shop and into the backyard. He spotted what appeared to be a pile of stuff beneath a tree.
What he found was much more disturbing.
“When he looked closer, he realized it was a homeless woman sleeping there,” White’s partner Dmitri Belser said in an email to Berkeleyside. “Then when he got closer, he realized she was dead. It appears that she had been drinking (there was a bottle with her) and then she must have died of hypothermia.”
White immediately called the Berkeley Police Department, which contacted the coroner’s office. Police cars and a white coroner’s van stayed parked in front of the property, which is right across the street from Berkeley High School, for several hours.
The coroner’s office confirmed Sunday that it picked up a body in Berkeley on Saturday. The office could not release any details since next of kin had not been notified.
Berkeley police officials said the department had investigated the discovery of a body. While the cause of death is unknown, Sgt. Andrew Frankel said homicide detectives were not alerted.
Belser said he reached out because he was concerned that, even in a community as wealthy as Berkeley, people still face such dire circumstances.
“It sickens me that we live in a society where we think of ourselves as civilized and people freeze to death because they have nowhere to live,” he said.
The temperature Friday night dropped to 39 degrees, according to weather.com.
Helping those without housing has become a major priority for Mayor Jesse Arreguín. In December, the Berkeley City Council voted to establish an “emergency operations center,” to address the issue. Since then, many city staff members have devoted numerous hours to the issue, according to Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman.
In the last few weeks, Berkeley has doubled the number of nighttime shelter beds it offers in addition to its regular shelter beds. The newest nighttime shelter, at 1231 Second St., can accommodate dogs and large amounts of gear. Berkeley even expanded hours for warming centers, places people can stay during the day, but the extra daytime hours have not been well-used and are being phased out, according to a staff report.
Still, many people who live outdoors avoid the shelters. They regard the city-run facilities as restrictive and prefer their independence and the camaraderie of the communities they have built up around them, according to homeless providers and interviews with those who are homeless.
White and Belser, who is the executive director of the Ed Roberts Campus, are planning to move a brown-shingle duplex now on Walnut Street to the property on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and restore it as affordable housing. Equity Residential purchased the duplex, and another six-unit building when it assembled a number of parcels of land to construct the Acheson Commons project. The buildings were rent-controlled and Equity was required to find a new location for them. Equity sold its stake in the project to Mill Creek Residental, a Texas-based firm, in September. No date has been set yet for the move, said Belser. He and White are still looking for a parcel on which to place the larger home.
The two men have not seen campers on the MLK property before, said Belser. Some police officers said they knew the deceased woman and had interacted with her before, he said.
Editors’ note: This article was updated to include comments by the Berkeley Police Department and to remove a reference to death by “natural causes.”