The Berkeley City Council, June 13. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night, as part of its overall budget approval, to put $400,000 toward an ambitious new temporary shelter program estimated to cost more than $2 million each year to run.

The vote was the latest sign of council’s continued focus on ending homelessness, which Mayor Jesse Arreguín has described as his No. 1 priority. The city already spends nearly $18 million in federal, state and local funds on its array of homelessness programs and services, and has pledged to pursue a “visionary” $90 million homeless housing development on Berkeley Way.

This article is part of a Bay Area-wide media effort to focus coverage on people experiencing homelessness. Read Berkeleyside’s full day of coverage.

“This is the biggest investment we probably have ever made to address displacement and homelessness — probably ever in any budget the city’s ever adopted,” Arreguín said, crediting fellow council members Sophie Hahn and Linda Maio for their commitment to the new Pathways shelter and services project. He also thanked the city manager, budget director and staff for finding ways to make the budget pencil out. “We should be proud of what we’re doing tonight.”

Council voted in favor of a hybrid approach to the Pathways program, set to include a “STAIR Center” and “Bridge Living Community,” as well as a “Homeward Bound” program. The STAIR Center, a new, low-barrier shelter, would offer 1-2 months “respite” from the streets, and assessment through the Hub to determine what comes next.

The other program, Bridge, “a low-barrier shelter, either made of sturdy tent cabins or indoors, would provide transitional stays (4-6 months or more) for chronically homeless individuals receiving ‘last mile’ case management and documents preparation for permanent supportive housing,” according to a recent city staff report.

The Homeward Bound piece would include one-time travel costs to help individuals reunite with friends or family who can help provide housing for them elsewhere.

The program is estimated to cost $2.8 million the first year and $2.6 million each year after that. As noted in a recent Berkeleyside overview of Pathways, most of the city money would need to come from the General Fund. North Berkeley Councilwoman Hahn has said there are likely to be significant private donations as well, which she is pursuing.

The reason “there are few federal or county opportunities to fund these programs,” as per staff, is because the national trend has moved toward using a coordinated entry system to focus housing and support resources on the chronically homeless who are most in need. That’s why, last year, Berkeley was the first in the county to create the Hub, which has that goal as its mission. A new investment in temporary shelters is, to some extent, at odds with that approach in that it potentially diverts resources away from permanent housing, but proponents say they believe it will provide a pathway to get more people into it in the long run.

Staff made it clear earlier this month that there is already a significant funding gap for another bold proposal the city has been pursuing for years to build a 142-unit housing and shelter complex on Berkeley Way for homeless individuals.

But council members said Tuesday night they are confident they will be able to pull the plans off.

“I do think we will have community commitment,” said Hahn. She said she and the mayor are already in touch with “organizations and individuals” who are interested to learn more about how to get involved. Hahn said she’ll also pursue grants and wants to “find every single scrap of money” that might be available. “I know a new project, a new undertaking, is always going to have trouble finding its place in a budget that’s largely established. But I hope that, in the future, this will be one of our established programs.”

She continued: “It is very hard for me that the homeless programs are essentially beggars in this process. And I want them to have a permanent seat at the budget table going forward. And I hope that will happen as we find resources for these critically important projects.”

The Pathways money was part of the council vote to approve the city budget for the next two years. In addition to Pathways, council approved $650,000 suggested by the mayor’s office to help support eviction defense and housing counseling, the city’s Housing Retention Program and the city’s Flexible Housing Subsidies Pool.

Officials said they appreciated the collaborative nature of the budget process, and the work the mayor did to try to make sure resources were spread throughout all council districts.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who represents the downtown district, said she was pleased to support the Pathways program and other housing-related allocations, as well as the budget process overall.

“I’m basically getting nothing for my district but one stop sign, but that’s fine with me because we are funding the city’s priorities,” she said.

Councilman Kriss Worthington said he hopes the city will spend the next six months actively pursing more ways to bring in money to city coffers. Those could include a new density bonus plan on Telegraph Avenue, and efforts related to cannabis cultivation policy and other foundation grants.

Worthington drew acclaim Tuesday night when he allocated $21,000 from his own discretionary fund to help out the struggling Berkeley Art Center, which said it desperately needs that money to continue its work.

Much of the public comment on the budget revolved around the city’s approach to arts funding, which officials said was, in fact, the biggest allocation to the arts it has ever made.

But, for council, the Pathways project was the one that garnered the most attention.

Said South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett, on the need to invest more to end homelessness: “We don’t want to have an exponential increase in human misery in this town.”

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, from northeast Berkeley, said she, too, wants to get people off the streets into permanent housing. But she also referenced a San Francisco Chronicle story published earlier this week that raised concerns for her, particularly in relation to programs that are not tied directly to housing.

“They’re spending millions of dollars on their programs, and they’re not really seeing that any difference is being made,” she said. “It’s very discouraging.”

Hahn said she disagreed with the Chronicle assessment.

“What it tells us is not that the programs in San Francisco are not working,” she said. “Actually what it is telling us is that the problem of homelessness is growing faster than those services can keep up.”

Northwest Berkeley representative Maio said she welcomes the new Pathways center, though the tent village is likely to be in her district. One location that’s been discussed is city property on Second Street between Virginia and Cedar streets, though no final decision has been made, the mayor said Tuesday night. Maio noted that, though the Gilman underpass encampment has been cleared since last year, many of those individuals have moved to Second and Cedar streets, and the area near the Seabreeze Market at University Avenue en route to the Berkeley Marina.

Maio also noted a recent staff report that found only 3% of people on Berkeley streets do not want to get into housing of some kind. All the city’s shelters are full, and an emergency shelter the city ran earlier this year filled up each night within five minutes. She said the city needs to do better, and that Pathways will help.

“Everybody … wants to be under a roof,” Maio said. “It’s our job to provide that.”

Avatar photo

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...