A conceptual drawing for a new homeless center called Pathways proposed at Second and Cedar streets. Image: Office of Councilwoman Sophie Hahn

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to move ahead with plans to open a new homeless shelter at Second and Cedar streets by February — despite many unknowns about financing, staffing and logistics.

Councilwomen Lori Droste and Cheryl Davila abstained from the vote, while the other officials voted in favor. Droste expressed concern about the project budget and how it fits in with the rest of the city’s homeless services, and Davila said she is worried about environmental health and the toxicity of the land where the new “temporary” shelter is slated to be built.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the location of the proposed Pathways center had not been set or widely known. Some council members said they have, however, done outreach to immediate neighbors of the site, on Second Street between Cedar and Virginia streets — and been met with enthusiasm. Much of the discussion about Pathways has taken place within the city’s Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness, which is chaired by Mayor Jesse Arreguín.

“I don’t love this because it feels like we’re doing it mid-way and haven’t thought through all the planning,” said Councilwoman Kate Harrison. But she noted that it’s just one piece of the city’s overall approach to homeless services and programs, and added that time is of the essence. “We’re going to have winter. We have to have a place for people to go.”

Arreguín has said ending homelessness is his top priority, and the Pathways Project is a key feature of that. As described Tuesday, the city first plans to rent two large modular buildings that house 25 people each in “dorms” divided by low walls into rooms for two to four people. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn estimated 150 people might be able to stay in those facilities each year, when turnover is taken into account. Later, assuming the city can find the money, officials said they want to build a tiny house village on the same block.

There are a lot of “ifs,” however. According to the council item prepared for Tuesday’s meeting, the city will pursue the modular buildings “if such a configuration is feasible given the street dimensions and leasing conditions.” If not, the city will “pursue alternative structures that align with the Pathways model.” Further detail was not provided.

The financing of the project is also somewhat undefined. Earlier this year, council voted to allocate $400,000 in start-up money for Pathways, and the city is also pursuing federal housing dollars for the “cabin-based tiny homes” that would be built in a second phase of construction. Hahn described $130,000 in private donations as “highly likely,” already, but said she could not yet reveal the identities of the donors.

“It’s a little bit of a patchwork but we’ve looked at it carefully,” Hahn said, adding that she feels it’s appropriate for the city to move forward now.

Staff said Tuesday that these numbers were rough estimates only, and that the staffing estimate was significantly understated. Source: Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness

There’s also no official line-item budget for Pathways, though council asked staff to put something together to release to the public online. The budget estimates provided as part of the ad hoc committee report, particularly in the area of staffing, were described Tuesday night as significantly understated: a $7,000 figure was listed for staff-related set-up costs, when the reality is likely to be $100,000 to $200,000, staff said. (An error in an earlier version of this story has been fixed.)

In another twist, which council said was driven by the need to get the effort up and running as quickly as possible, the city plans to issue a request for proposals from organizations that could run Pathways — though it does not yet have the money set aside to pay for the actual services. Staff told council this was atypical, but said the city can take it one step at a time: put out the request now, but wait to enter into the actual contract until the city knows whether it has the money.

Council said it plans to come back in November for further discussions about the budget to determine how much money the city might have to offer, and how much could come from private donations and other sources. The city still also needs to figure out how to pay for the housing subsidies that would actually get people into permanent supportive housing; that was not part of the vote Tuesday night.

The city already spends nearly $18 million in federal, state and local funds on a wide array of homelessness programs and services, and has also pledged to pursue a “visionary” $90 million homeless housing development on Berkeley Way. Mayor Arreguín said Tuesday he would like to see a ballot measure in 2018 to create a long-term public funding source for programs related to ending homelessness in Berkeley.

The Pathways Project

The new facility at Second and Cedar is set, eventually, to include a “STAIR Center” and “Bridge Living Community,” as well as a program like Homeward Bound. The STAIR Center would offer several 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 city staff report from June.

The STAIR Center is the piece of the endeavor council is aiming to open by February.

The schedule is somewhat unclear, however. Officials said repeatedly Tuesday night they want the facility to open in time for winter. Last year the city opened an emergency winter shelter on Second Street in late December and ran it through mid-June. It cost more than $100,000 to operate. Officials did not discuss what they might do to offer shelter this year in the winter months before Pathways might open.

Members of the public and some council members alike said they didn’t think there had been enough community outreach about choosing the location for Pathways — and suggested the city could do more going forward.

“Even though I am on the subcommittee I just found this out over the weekend,” Davila said.

Arreguín said many people have come to his ad hoc committee to share input, which has been taken into account as much as possible. The committee’s meeting details and schedule are not posted on the city website, however, so it’s unclear when the group has met or what it has discussed.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she had some questions about the location choice because the area is not zoned for housing. The mayor said council previously gave the city the power to waive certain zoning requirements to create shelter, as part of a resolution to address the housing crisis. He went on to describe Pathways — both the modular units and tiny homes — as a “pop-up facility” that would never be permanent.

Wengraf said that didn’t fully assuage her concerns, given the limited capacity in the Bay Area for permanent housing placements.

“We’re calling it temporary, but unfortunately it may end up being a little longer than temporary,” she said.

Councilwoman Linda Maio, in whose district the Pathways project would be located, and who has been working closely with Arreguín and Hahn in the ad hoc group, said people are already on the streets in the neighborhood, and very vulnerable.

“This is not perfect. It’s a start,” she said. Maio said she had been very concerned to hear recently from local business owners and some campers about the status quo for those living in the streets in northwest Berkeley. She said it will be critical for the city to offer a positive alternative: “There were things that were happening that shouldn’t have been happening anywhere.”

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...