Belongings and pets would be permitted at the new shelters proposed in the Pathways Project. Photo: Kai Schreiber

On Tuesday the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to move ahead with an expansive plan to address homelessness with brand new facilities and services, directing city staff to flesh out the proposal.

Despite giving the green light, some council members raised concerns about the cost of carrying out the massive plan, saying it could eat up resources that could instead be used for permanent housing or other efforts.

The Pathways Project, developed by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, includes both short- and long-term measures. First the city would build two new facilities to provide respite to the most at-risk individuals. The proposal also directs staff to develop a much longer-term plan to end homelessness – likely a regional collaboration with a significant price tag, according to the proposal.

The city in recent years has embraced a “housing-first” approach to ending homelessness, but given the scarcity of housing in Berkeley, the Pathways Project starts with near-term emergency measures, Arreguín said.

The first project priority is the creation of the STAIR Center, a new “low-barrier” shelter where homeless individuals could live, along with their pets and belongings, for two months. From there, some would move on to the Bridge Living Community, a new “village”-like facility, possibly comprised of tent cabins, for up to four more months. There would be access to new and existing services on site at each facility.

To identify potential residents for the new facilities, the city would spend four to six weeks at a homeless encampment, using engagement methods that have been effective at connecting high-needs individuals to services in San Francisco. Once that outreach period was complete and everyone had been offered a spot at the STAIR Center, the city would shut down the encampment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Hahn called homelessness in Berkeley “our homegrown humanitarian refugee crisis.”

Continuing to cycle homeless individuals through the medical and criminal justice systems is costly and “cruel,” Hahn said. “We’re talking about shifting resources away from expensive and ineffective methods that we have been using for years and years that are essentially the equivalent of banging our heads against the wall.”

Last week the City Council heard that some of Berkeley’s services are working quite well. Staff reported that 57 people have been housed and hundreds placed in shelters through The Hub, a new “coordinated entry” system connecting homeless individuals to an array of city services.

Elements in the Pathways Project would interact with and fortify these existing programs and services, Arreguín said. The Hub would help refer people to the STAIR Center and perform intakes there, he said.

Rendering of the STAIR Center. The design could change significantly. Photo: Chris Walker/screen shot from proposal

Wengraf: “Does this threaten our ultimate goal of building permanent affordable housing?”

The Pathways Project proposal is scant on details — no funding sources or locations for the two new facilities are named — which some council members noted.

“This is not a deal-breaker for me, but I think it’s really important to identify the funding first,” Councilwoman Lori Droste said.

It is the job of city staff to hash out the specifics, said Arreguín and Hahn. Tuesday’s vote sends the proposal to the Ad Hoc Sub-Committee on Homelessness (comprised of Arreguín, Hahn, and Councilmembers Linda Maio and Cheryl Davila), which will come back to the council with recommendations on implementing the plan, including potential costs and funding sources. City staff will also begin developing the long-term initiative. The proposal says that plan should come back to the council by the end of 2017, but City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said that timeline is unrealistic.

Councilmembers Wengraf and Droste said they worry the Pathways Project could backfire somewhat, inadvertently halting efforts to house homeless individuals by devoting dollars and attention to the interim short-term measures.

“Does this in any way threaten our ultimate goal of building permanent affordable housing for all those people?” Wengraf asked.

The City Council voted Tuesday, April 4 to pursue the Pathway Project. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Advocates of the Pathways Project did not deny that implementation would require a major fundraising effort and innovative financing.

The City of Berkeley spends $17.7 million in federal, state and local funds on homeless services and related police and medical costs. The city allocates $3.8 to community agencies providing services for the homeless. Building and operating the STAIR Center alone could cost more than that, said Droste, pointing to the cost of San Francisco’s Navigation Centers, which were the model for Berkeley’s proposal.

“I am committed to exhausting all other avenues of resources — federal dollars, state, county and private philanthropic dollars,” Hahn said. “If this gets passed tonight, I will start doing outreach tomorrow, looking at foundations and wealthy individuals in Berkeley and beyond.”

Maio: There’s nothing wrong with being “ambitious”

During public comment, many people cautiously praised the plan. Berkeley Considers, the city’s new online commenting platform, also brought in 50 responses, a little more than half supporting the plan.

Boona cheema, the former director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency and a longtime advocate for the homeless, called the proposal “incredible” but said she was eager to help improve it. She calculated that she’s spoken over the years with more than 10,000 homeless individuals, who want a level of security and respect this proposal does not provide, she said.

A homeless man said he is skeptical that short-term facilities can provide adequate support for people with mental-health needs.

“I have clinical depression and that’s why I’m concerned about this program,” he said during public comment. If a homeless person stops taking their medication, “it takes weeks and sometimes months for people to get back to normality…The best thing for these people is actually being in a permanent place where they can take their medicines,” he said.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison agreed that the plan could let some people fall through the cracks, like those who have long lived in shelters and will miss out on the chance to stay at the new facilities. Others asked about the people living in encampments who do not comply with the city’s outreach.

Maio, who noted that her West Berkeley district is “ground zero for encampments,” said she is hopeful the proposal, which she cosponsored, could provide an alternative for most.

“We are very ambitious. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...