A section of the old Premier Cru complex on Ninth Street (at University) is now an emergency homeless shelter for the winter. Photo: Gary Wayne

Berkeley’s newest emergency homeless shelter has a lot of unexpected amenities: free Wi-Fi, plenty of electrical outlets to charge up phones and other electronic devices; a television room; indoor portable toilets; a storage area where people can leave their property for extended periods of time; the offer of a hot breakfast; and room for 75 men and women to spend the night.

The Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter (BESS), run by the Dorothy Day House, opened its doors in one of the old Premier Cru buildings at 1925 Ninth St. on Dec. 23. Every day until April 15, the shelter will offer lodging from 6:45 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Despite the amenities, the word doesn’t seem to have gotten out yet about the facility, according to David Stegman, the executive director of Dorothy Day House. The first night the shelter opened it only had 21 guests. On Tuesday night, there were 56 people there. But with the rains this week, Stegman anticipated that the shelter would catch on.

“It’s a brand new site so people don’t know where it is,” he said. “And the weather has not been all that bad either. I am sure we will fill up to 75 very quickly.”

Stegman is excited about the possibilities for the space, which he called “enormous.” In previous years, Dorothy Day has run an emergency shelter for the city in rotating locations, including various churches, community centers, and the North Berkeley Senior Center. Those spots could hold around 47 people.

During the rainy winter of 2016-2017, Berkeley hired Dorothy Day to run a second shelter in a building it owned at 1231 Second St. That facility was a “wet shelter” which meant people could come in high on drugs or intoxicated, for example, as long as they behaved themselves. The shelter, which also held 47 people, was partially funded with private donations. It was considered a big success.

While the new shelter cannot hold as many people as the combined two shelters, it has the advantage of being quasi-permanent, which means staff doesn’t have to set it up each day and take it apart each morning, said Stegman. Berkeley purchased the block-long, three-building complex in March for $6.65 million, with the aim of building affordable housing there one day. The City Council is also considering using Premier Cru’s old retail space, which has a separate entrance on University Avenue, as City Council chambers. But for now, the building that can be accessed via Ninth Street will be used as an emergency shelter.

The main space, which used to be the wine retailer’s warehouse, is huge. That means those coming in for the night can spread their mats out more than they could at previous facilities, said Stegman. They will have more room for their stuff too. Homeless people generally have a lot of possessions because they lose them frequently or they get stolen, he said.

BESS will have a room where guests can store possessions like sleeping bags and small suitcases in bins. They will be available on a first-come, first serve basis and people can leave stuff there even during the day when there won’t be access to the facility, he said.

That’s just one of its many selling points. There is a separate room with three portable toilets, which means people don’t have to go outside at night if they have to go to the bathroom. There is an upstairs room where Dorothy Day monitors, most of whom are homeless themselves, can sleep. There is also office space. However, there are no showers or laundry facilities.

“The building is inviting,” said Stegman. “It’s really warm. It’s really bright. There’s great light. There’s lots of room.”

The Dorothy Day house will serve everyone a hot breakfast of coffee, tea, oatmeal, cereal fruit, and donated donuts and other foods.

James Reagan, who has been coordinating food deliveries to homeless shelters in Berkeley for years, is working on getting a regular hot dinner for the shelter. So far he has connected with a number of private individuals who have promised to bring food on a schedule. On Tuesday night, one group brought pizza and hot chicken soup and they plan to bring dinner every Tuesday, he said. Another group will bring food on Fridays. Reagan is looking for food donors for the other nights.

“These are people who are community residents,” said Reagan. “They want to give directly. They don’t want to go through community agencies.”

The city of Berkeley wants to make sure that the new shelter does not have a negative impact on neighbors and nearby businesses, said Stegman. That is one reason the shelter hours are limited. The city has also paid for a security guard to patrol the area to make sure people are not hanging about in off hours. Bauman College occupies a building in the middle of the complex, and the guard will be on duty until after the students finish night classes, said Stegman.

West Berkeley has not traditionally offered a lot of services for the homeless, although it is increasingly becoming a place for those without homes to live. Reagan said part of that reflects the tough stance taken by the business improvement districts downtown and along Telegraph Avenue. Also, the police seem to be letting people in West Berkeley alone, he said.

There is a sizable homeless encampment along Second Street near Cedar. Tents, tarps, broken bikes, and a lot of garbage line a number of blocks. There are small encampments west of the Fourth Street shopping district on Frontage Road and individual tents can be spotted all around.

Reagan said many of those living in the big encampment on Second Street are there “by choice” and probably won’t come to BESS since they eschew places with curfews and other rules and prefer to live outside.

Since the new shelter has relaxed rules, officials hope it will persuade people to come in who usually avoid shelters. People can be high or intoxicated as long as they behave and are not violent or have outbursts. They can bring their stuff. And they can bring service animals.

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...