Executive director Leslie Berkler stands on the front porch of the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center on Acton Street. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

The Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center sits in a small charming house with a picket fence on Acton Street in West Berkeley.

Seen from the outside, there is little to suggest that many of the women who roam its halls don’t have permanent housing, or are the victims of domestic abuse, or have severe mental illnesses, or have other hardships. The brown-shingled, one-story house just looks like an inviting home.

And that’s what its creators intended. Founded 30 years ago by a group of women concerned there were not enough services that focused on homeless women and children, the WDDC is set up to be a respite from the tough life on the streets, a place women can come to eat, recharge, and get help.

“We ‘re the best-kept secret in Berkeley,” said Leslie Berkler, the WDDC’s executive director. Berkler took over in April after years of serving on the board. She previously was the director of education and children’s events at Book Passage bookstore and is married to Andy Ross, a literary agent and the long-time owner of Cody’s Books.

Around 1,300 women and young children pass through the WDDC’s doors each year, many of them chronically homeless and the heads of their households. Once they make their way down the shady street and up the ramp into the home, the women know they are guaranteed a hearty breakfast and a lunch cooked by volunteers and professional chefs, a cozy living room with armchairs and couches, and social workers to help them find housing, escape domestic abuse, and learn life skills. And the Drop-in Center also hands out practical offerings to make their clients’ lives easier: kits with shampoo, deodorant, tampons and sanitary napkins, and other necessities to keep clean, as well as diapers and wipes for kids. Sometimes AC Transit bus vouchers are available.

“The idea is that you can sit inside a nice house with a nice atmosphere, have a nice meal and be welcomed,” said Berkler. “It’s a safe place to be during the day and we can help people [get to] the next step.”

Rosa Semien, housing case manager, works at her desk in the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
A playroom for kids at the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
A drawer of donated supplies for clients of the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

The clients of the WDDC may be camping in the streets or they may be sleeping in their cars or on the couches of friends, said Berkler. A number of women who were sleeping at the Second Street shelter, which was open for the winter but closed June 15, have now found their way to the center, she said.

While all people living on the streets are vulnerable to violence, women who sleep outside are subject to additional danger. They frequently are the victims of assault or rape and have to be constantly vigilant, according to Monica Chambers, the program manager for WDDC, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. Often, women will come to the house exhausted because they have stayed awake during the night to fend off unwelcome advances, she said.

People not experiencing homelessness may not realize that many shelters close down early in the morning, sometimes at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and don’t let those sleeping there back inside until 6 p.m. or even later. That means those without homes have to find places to hang out during the day. In Berkeley, many homeless people spend hours at the public library or sitting in parks or on the sidewalk. The WDDC offers an antidote to that additional stress.

One recent weekday afternoon, Heather Ovenden, 59, sat in an armchair in the WDDC living room reading a book with a bright orange cover. Ovenden, who has not had a permanent home for close to two years, comes to WDDC a few days a week.

“I’m a redhead and can’t be out in the sun and I can’t hang out in the park,” she said. “This place is ideal because you can get a good lunch and a break. The food is really healthy.”

Ovenden worked as an IT professional for 19 years but lost her job in September 2015. She got so depressed she stopped functioning and lost her apartment as a result. For a time she slept on friends’ couches or in her cramped Volkswagen Beetle, which was very uncomfortable.

“I just didn’t get help until it was too late,” said Ovenden. “I just isolated myself.”

Ovenden has been staying at Harrison House, an 80-bed shelter at 711 Harrison St. run by the non-profit BOSS, since February 2016. She has two part-time jobs, including one in Union City, but comes to WDDC during the day. She said she has learned about survival skills from the other clients of the home, as well as tips like where to get good free clothing. Ovenden is looking for a room to rent but has found that Berkeley and its environs are too expensive. She said she cannot move to Stockton or somewhere else where the cost of housing is less, however, because her work is in the Bay Area.

Ebony, 40, has been without a permanent home for about eight years. Here she relaxes in the Drop-in Center’s living room and reads a book. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
A client, Elizabeth, relaxes at the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center. She is saving up to hike the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

Kimberly Medrano was also seeking respite one recent weekday morning. She sat crouched in an armchair in a corner, her left eye surrounded by a dark bruise. Medrano started to cry as she spoke about her former boyfriend, with whom she had been living for a number of months. The two had been staying in a warehouse in Oakland but were evicted after the December Ghost Ship warehouse fire killed 36 people. The landlord got scared and ordered everyone out, she said.

“It was really hard,” said Medrano, 51. “You just scramble around looking for a place to live.”

The couple then moved to an old Crown Victoria, where Medrano slept sitting up. “It’s hard, but you do what you have to do,” she said. Then, a short time ago, her boyfriend beat her up, forcing Medrano to flee. She has been sleeping at Harrison House and coming to the WDDC, but misfortune keeps happening. She is recovering from being attacked by pit bulls a few years ago and she recently left her purse with her ID and medication on an AC Transit bus. But at least WDDC gives her a place that she feels comfortable.

The WDDC is a place to “decompress, to feel safe,” said Medrano, who hopes to return to school soon.

Berkler estimates that 65% to 75% of the women coming to the drop-in center in any given year have experienced domestic violence. The house doesn’t keep exact statistics but Berkler said more than 600 women each year have participated in workshops dealing with trauma or report having experienced domestic violence. Other workshops offered by the Drop-in Center include one on managing difficult feelings, and how to set healthy boundaries in relationships.

Clients used to be able just to walk into the door and start receiving services. However, in response to new demands made by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of Berkeley created a central intake process through The Hub on Fairview Street. All women must go to the Hub first, and then be referred to WDDC.

WDDC’s annual budget is $499,000, said Berkler. The city of Berkeley contributes $185,00 of that. HUD contributes $70,000 for WDDC’s Bridget House, which offers six months of transitional housing for four women and their children.

Massimo Covello, the executive chef of PIQ in Berkeley, cooks lunch for the clients of the Drop-in Center every Friday. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Massimo Covello making pasta for the women at the Drop-in Center. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

Food is a central part of the nurturing atmosphere that WDDC offers. On most days, volunteers come in and prepare a fresh meal. On Friday, Massimo Covello, a partner and the executive chef at PIQ in downtown Berkeley, made a Caprese salad with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, sausage, and a pasta with beef ragu and spinach. He also cut up a loaf of fresh bread from the restaurant. The ingredients are organic and are the same served to restaurant customers, he said.

“At PIQ we care about the community,” said Covello, who has been donating his services and the food for about six months. “I am really happy to help the women. It makes a huge difference to have a good meal.”

Most of the women Berkeleyside interviewed mentioned how much they enjoyed the food at WDDC, as well as the access to the kitchen. In exchange for the meals, every woman has to do a household chore, like empty the dishwasher or cleaning up. Many other Berkeley businesses and organizations donate on a regular basis, such as Whole Foods and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Berkeley-Oakland Realtors’ Association is donating some computers for the women to use, said Berkler. Rebuilding Together and the Lions Club do repairs on the house. State Assemblyman Tony Thurmond made a plea to constituents, which resulted in the donation of 5,000 diapers and wipes. The Alafi Family Fund donates about $25,000 a year in honor of Ginger Alafi, who served on the WDDC board.

While WDDC now has a dozen paid staff, it relies on a corps of volunteers to sit and talk to the clients, prepare meals, play with the children, and help manage the office, among other activities, said Berkler.

“These people do God’s work,” said Jacquelyn McCormick, a senior aide to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and his point person for issues surrounding homelessness. “They are amazing.”

Check out the video below about the center, made by Siciliana Trevino of Quirkely:

YouTube video

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...