Berkeley’s newest shelter on Second Street used to house public works employees. It sits behind a chain-link fence. Photo: Google Maps

On a chilly night last week, a quiet line of about a dozen people stood at the gate of Berkeley’s new Second Street homeless shelter, waiting for the 7 p.m. open. Most were bundled in coats; some carried large suitcases and bags, others nothing at all.

“This is one of the best ones [shelters] for me; the people are nice and I feel secure,” said an older woman who didn’t want to provide her name. She, like many staying on Second Street that night, has been a regular there since it opened Dec. 23.

The shelter, located at 1231 Second St. near I-80 between Gilman Street and the Albany border, has storage space for bulky personal belongings, locking bike racks, and kennels for pet dogs — steps taken to address some of the reasons people give for not using shelters. Surrounded by a chain-link fence, the city-owned, single-story flat-roofed building used to house public-works employees.

People filtered in for the next hour, arriving by car, bike and foot.

In mid-December, under direction from the City Council, the city established an emergency operations center to oversee stepped-up efforts to expand winter-shelter space, establish daytime warming centers and offer other services for those without homes. This action was among the first orders of business of new Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who took office with a pledge to address homelessness as a top priority.

Second Street was a direct response.

Increasing the number of winter beds, removing obstacles to shelter use, such as allowing dogs, providing transportation to shelters, and increasing outreach to connect people living on the streets to services were among the steps set in motion by the City Council.

While so far no-one has brought a canine companion to Second Street, the city feels it’s on the right track and will continue to look for ways to get people sheltered and ultimately into permanent housing, which is the longer term goal, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

“City staff are doing what we can… we can’t force people to take advantage of it,” Chakko said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to reduce barriers; that’s what we can control. We can give people chances to make choices in their life, but ultimately, it’s their choice.”

A number of homeless people have pitched tents on Fourth Street and University Avenue, under the I-80 overpass. Photo: Kate Rauch

This was evident last week on University Avenue near Fourth Street at a popular homeless spot under the freeway overpass where one could see several tents, makeshift shelters and bedrolls.

Though located about a mile from the Second Street shelter, many at the sidewalk encampment said they had no interest in the accommodation, even those with dogs. “They [shelters] haven’t worked for me,” said Missy, a woman living in a sidewalk tent with her boyfriend and dog, Baby Girl, a pit bull or pit bull mix.

Missy, who grew up in Berkeley, and who has been homeless since getting out of jail about a year ago, said she doesn’t like dealing with people in close quarters, such as at shelters. She’s saving for an apartment, she said.

The same went for Kimble Welch, whose bedroll was a few yards from Missy. Welch, who grew up in Santa Cruz, has been homeless for about 20 years, which he attributes to alcoholism. His small terrier-looking pooch, Paxi, was curled up in a bed of blankets near his feet.

Welch said he’d never stay in a shelter. There are “a lot of personality conflicts,” he said. He likes being homeless in Berkeley because “the cops are nice,” he said.

Berkeley’s shelter system includes a mix of year-round and winter shelters for a current capacity of about 278 people, 148 permanent beds, and an additional 130 in winter.

The city contracts with nonprofit organizations to run its shelters. Dorothy Day House operates the winter shelters, which open based on the weather, namely how cold it is or whether it’s raining.

The year-round shelters are usually full, said Kristen Lee, the city’s manager of housing and community services. Occupancy at the winter shelters, including Second Street, varies night by night but has ranged from 50% to 75% for the past few weeks, with greater use recently during the heavy rains, according to city data.

In addition to Second Street, which is open nightly and can accommodate 47 people, a second winter shelter is operated on a rotating basis at the North Berkeley Senior Center, the First Presbyterian Church and the Frances Albrier Community Center. Each of these can accommodate 65 people.

Hours are generally 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., except at First Presbyterian, which opens at 10 p.m.

The city is working with other churches and community sites to add to the rotating shelter, seeking locations that don’t have evening events or activities that affect when people can bed down for the night, Lee said. “It’s better for everyone; sometimes consumers can’t get in until 10 p.m.”

The fixed location of Second Street makes it a welcome alternative to the rotating shelter, said Melissa Hanson, 77, who was among those settling in for the night last week. “So we know where we are going every day,” she said. “I feel safe, there’s a light on all the time.”

Hanson, who said she’s lived in her car and on the streets, said she’s on waiting lists in several cities for senior housing.

After signing-in, shelter clients gathered sleeping pads, clean sheets and sleeping bags, choosing their spots on the white concrete floor in small side rooms or the main common area. Many knew each other; some helped first-timers. Before 8 p.m., many were resting in their beds.

Berkeley’s homeless program, organized through a coordinated entry system called The Hub, is focused on supported permanent housing, prioritizing the chronically homeless and disabled. Hub workers regularly visit shelters, doing intakes.

The city has one full-time homeless outreach worker, with other staff filling in under the emergency, Chakko said. Plans are in the works to hire five more full-time workers.

“Some of this work takes repeated effort over and over again; staff going out trying to convince people to take advantage of services. It’s hard work and it takes a lot of time; it’s not magic, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Chakko said.

“On some level putting up a shelter is a manageable quick thing we can do,” Lee said.

“I’m really proud we’ve been able to work so quickly and get resources in place to shelter so many people in this horrible weather, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Lee. “The process is much longer when you’re talking about solving homelessness.”

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...