A section of the old Premier Cru complex is now an emergency homeless shelter for the winter. Photo: Gary Wayne

On a Monday evening in mid-March, the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter (BESS) at Ninth Street and University Avenue was warm, calm — and filled to capacity. At the back wall of the former wine warehouse, music played softly as a man danced in place to the beat. Another man looked agitated as he talked with shelter workers at the front desk.

“We were completely full as soon as we opened, at 5:24 p.m. today,” said John Goana, a shelter monitor.

People who want to sleep here have to get in line at 4 p.m. to secure a spot. Sign-ups begin at 5 p.m., and they start a waitlist for those who aren’t among the first 90. Unlike at other Berkeley shelters, there are no early-morning sign-ups for BESS.

The city-owned building, once the warehouse for the wine retailer Premier Cru, holds a maximum of 90 people because of fire safety rules. It’s been “filled to 90 almost every night, recently,” said Bob Whalen, the program manager for BESS. He also coordinates volunteers at the shelter and oversees the daily community breakfast.

Dorothy Day House, which has run the emergency shelter (also called the winter shelter) for Berkeley for 15 years, opened this space on Dec. 23. So far, 500 individuals have visited at least one time this season, according to David Stegman, executive director of Dorothy Day House.

Last year, when record rain pummeled the Bay Area, 970 individuals used BESS, according to city figures. While the numbers are lower this year, they still mean that more than half of those experiencing homelessness in Berkeley have stopped by the Ninth Street building. A 2017 count of the homeless in Berkeley showed that there were 972 people without permanent shelter, a jump of 16% from a count done two years earlier. Each night, about 664 people don’t have a place to sleep.

Part of the reason for the increase in the number of homeless people is that rents keep rising in the Bay Area, making it harder for those living on the margin to find a space  – and harder to settle people into more permanent digs, even in the less expensive areas of Richmond and Oakland, said Terrie Light, executive director of Berkeley Food and Housing Project.

In addition, “there’s a lot of competition for housing now, so landlords are more selective,” Light said. “Landlords can be choosy.”

The Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter operates in addition to four other city-sponsored, year-round shelters in Berkeley, Stegman said. They can sleep 140 people, according to city figures. When nights are really wet or really cold, the Dorothy Day House also opens a second emergency shelter in a city senior center.

BESS is slated to close on April 15 While City Councilman Kriss Worthington introduced a measure to the City Council in January to extend funding for the shelter until June, it did not pass, he said by email. It cost about $300,000 for the BESS program.

“It is very sad that we have a super popular, cost-effective program that is being abandoned,” said Worthington.

Last year, private donations allowed Dorothy Day House to keep BESS on Second Street open from April 15 until June.

Berkeley is increasing the number of beds for those experiencing homelessness

Berkeley had hoped to have a place for those using BESS to go when it closed April 15, but those plans have been delayed,

The city is currently constructing a complex on Second Street between Cedar and Virginia streets that will offer dormitory-style housing in modular buildings for up to 50 people for a few months at a time. The STAIR Center/BRIDGE Living Community is part of a new program, the Pathways Project, that Mayor Jesse Arreguín and the City Council characterize as more ambitious than any other tried in Berkeley’s history. People without homes will be offered “temporary respite,” at STAIR, and then can move into the BRIDGE Living Community to have time to find permanent housing. The program also combines funds for rapid rehousing services and money to send people back to their homes. Berkeley had hoped to open the complex in February, but May or June now seems more likely.

In recent years, the city has spent nearly $18 million in federal, state and local funds annually on its array of homelessness programs and services. The new Pathways Project will cost around $2.4 million annually.  Berkeley has already gotten about $100,000 in private donations to augment at the project and hopes to raise more funds.

Asked whether he’d like to see the BESS operate year-round, Whalen was unequivocal.

“Absolutely,” he said, and named three main reasons.

First, “if the city’s gonna tell them where they can’t be, they gotta tell them where they can be,” Whalen said. “You have to have a place where people can be.”

Next, he said, “after two months [of operation], we’re starting to gel as a community, getting to know people’s names and to know their idiosyncrasies. People are feeling confident and safe.”

Third, “we’re just now starting to get more cooperation from more agencies,” Whalen said. For example, social workers from the Hub (Berkeley’s central entry point for getting services) had been there recently. “We’d like to see them here more often.”

Whalen went on to say that Hub workers do outreach along the railroad tracks, where many of the people are averse to services, but that people staying at BESS are more open to receiving services. The temporary emergency shelter is a place where different agencies, those that provide legal services, mental health services, or housing services, could all meet with the people who need their help, he said.

This building holds 40 more people than the Second Street facility they used last winter.

“The larger size allows for multiple things that can be done,” Stegman said, including providing a space where several agencies can come and meet with people onsite between 7 and 9 a.m.

Local restaurants, businesses and individuals are helping out

When I arrived at the shelter that night in March, the volunteer staff was just putting away the serving pans from supper and cutting up donated cakes for the residents’ dessert. The large main room that serves as the general sleeping and eating area was clean and pleasant, unlike the shelter entryway, which smelled of urine, probably because of the indoor portable toilets set up nearby.

Dinner is served to those in the shelter and those on the waiting list. If food runs out, the staff will take something from the pantry or freezer, such as oatmeal, cereal, hot dogs, or frozen chicken patties donated by McDonald’s.

“We can reheat food and heat food up, but we can’t really cook,” said Whalen.

Local businesses and nearby residents have jumped in to help feed the people at the shelter. Peet’s recently donated a pallet of coffee, Whole Foods supplies pre-cut fresh fruit, and Starbucks donates pastries.

“Happy Donuts gives us doughnuts every day,” Whalen said.

A number of restaurants have supplied hot dinners, according to James Reagan, a volunteer who coordinates some meals. El Patio on San Pablo Avenue has donated chicken fajitas, rice and beans. Middle Eastern Market has brought in food. Luca Cucina has supplied cannoli. Hindu families have provided an array of vegan dishes, he said.

“It takes a village,” said Reagan.

The main-floor sleeping area is large and covered with thin mattresses. People are settling in for the night — plugging in cell phones at the wall outlets, laying their things out around their mats, spreading out sleeping bags, talking quietly with each other. There are a few wheelchairs along the wall. I notice that the women are in the same large room as the men, but off to one side.

Upstairs, a smaller room is allocated to homeless volunteers. In exchange for getting a more private area where they can sleep later and store some of their things, eight volunteers do tasks such as sweeping up cigarette butts around the neighborhood every morning, washing dishes, sweeping the floors, and folding donated clothes.

“If we were year-long, we could formalize [the volunteer program] and utilize it more,” Whalen said.

The other room upstairs is for the one-third of the paid staff who are homeless, Whalen said.

Storage area for people’s belongings at BESS. Photo: Mary Rees

In the back room with the dishwashing sink, Whalen showed me the shelved storage area, where residents can keep things in large, numbered plastic bins.

>“If we don’t see them for two weeks, then we remove their things and put them in a labeled bag for retrieval later, within the next two weeks,” Whalen said.

One corner is partitioned and curtained off around shelves of donated shoes, pants, shirts, jackets, and skirts. These are available to anyone who has an accident and needs a change of clothes, Whalen said.

The neighbors they’ve heard from have been mostly positive, according to Whalen. There was, however, one man who claimed his property value had declined because of the presence of the shelter, and another man who reported seeing a homeless man in his yard.

“The same thing happened when we were at the Second Street location [last winter], literally in the dump,” Whalen said. There were some objections from neighbors there, too.

I asked about any big problems he or his staff had encountered this winter.

“The thing I didn’t fully comprehend was what we do with people like the [agitated] man out there from Highland Hospital [dropped off after discharge] and people in wheelchairs. We thought their cases would be expedited,” Whalen said, “ but it’s very much slower than expected.”

Shelter-users have to behave well or face being banned from the shelter.

“We’ve had to ban about eight or nine badly behaved people,” Whalen said. “They were threatening violence.”

Apparently, word spreads. “They’re very vocal complaining about it,” Whalen said. “They get the word out for us.”

BESS volunteer Vince Armor in the storage area. Photo: Mary Rees

One woman staying at the shelter who would not give her name said she used to be a substitute teacher in the West Contra Costa and Alameda County school districts but has been homeless for eight years now.

She applied for a job in the Berkeley Unified School District several years ago, “but I was told that my fingerprints haven’t cleared,” she said, and they gave no explanation of why not. “Every move I make, there’s an obstacle, and it doesn’t get resolved,” she said.

“After my unemployment money ran out, it took a while to get SSI,” she said. That money, $850 a month, goes to pay for a storage space, a bus pass, and a cellphone. “Sometimes it takes all day just to take a shower.”

“There’s no advantage to sleeping here,” she said, “there’s no other place. I don’t have the income to rent.”

The food from outside is a treat, she said, but the bathrooms are smelly, especially by the end of the night.

“When they close this shelter, I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said.

“I would like to have my own life back,” she said. “I’m very capable in many ways.”

“All I want is to have a place of my own,” she said. Here, “at least I know where I sleep.”

Antoine Modice was sitting on his mat reading a Bible; he was spending his first night at the shelter. He had been sleeping outside for about two years, but more recently had just been released from a treatment facility and was trying to stay sober.

“I hope there’s a better place tomorrow when I see my therapist,” Modice said. “Right now I have to make it through tonight because that’s a challenge.”

By 8:30 the music was off and many people were already asleep. The shelter staff dims the lights at 8:00, said John Gaona, a monitor.

“A lot of the guys here have been out on the street, walking most of the day,” Gaona said. “They’re tired when they get here.”

Ganoa said he’s been “pleasantly surprised that people liked [the shelter] as much as they do.”

“When you don’t have a lot, a mat means a lot,” Gaona said.

Gaona recalled a woman who came in and moved the mat to one side and put down a dirty piece of cardboard she’d brought in with her. Gaona went out to the recycling, broke down a new box and offered it to her instead, but she refused it, saying it was too good for her.

“It broke my heart that someone would think that a good piece of cardboard would be too good for her,” Gaona said, as his eyes teared up. “I don’t think anyone should ever think that a nice piece of cardboard is too much to ask for.”

Update: The Berkeley City Council found funds to keep the shelter open until June 30.