The city is holding community work days to help get the Pathways center ready for action. The next ones come this weekend, June 16-17. Photo: Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s office

Volunteers spent the weekend in West Berkeley sprucing up the city’s new Pathways center to address homelessness, to prep it for a scheduled opening June 23.

The center, which has closed Second Street between Cedar and Virginia streets, is a first for Berkeley: Modular trailers outfitted with 45 beds are set to house an estimated 90 people over the course of a year, while “housing navigators” work with them to find more permanent lodging with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars in “rapid rehousing” money the city has secured. The city has designed the Center for Stability, Navigation and Respite, dubbed the “Stair Center” for short, as “a 24/7, low-barrier, service-rich … shelter that allows pets, accommodates couples, and provides storage for belongings.”

Since 2016, Berkeley has declared an ongoing state of emergency due to the estimated 1,000 individuals who live outside on city streets. The city has just 166 year-round shelter beds to fill the need, according to a city staff report prepared for Tuesday night’s Berkeley City Council meeting. It’s been Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s No. 1 goal to address the homelessness crisis, and he’s been working with Councilwomen Sophie Hahn and Linda Maio to bring Pathways into existence with the expertise of staff.

In recent weeks, the city has been clearing out homeless camps in West Berkeley, at the marina and on Second Street, citing health and safety code concerns. A popular new shelter the city launched in December is set to close at the end of June, leaving a gap for community members who need a place to sleep at night. According to data available last year, the city spends about $18 million annually in federal, state and local funds on a wide array of homelessness programs and services, and is working on a “visionary” $90 million homeless and affordable housing development on Berkeley Way. In the meantime, the city hopes its new Pathways project will address one of the city’s most pressing needs.

The information report for Tuesday night’s council meeting sums up the steps officials and staff have taken to launch the new program, as well as some challenges along the way. The program has seen some changes since it was first announced in March 2017 — particularly as staff has worked to figure out how much the facility and its operations would cost, and where the money would come from. Its opening has also been delayed a number of times, but the city says, ultimately, that was for the best.

Last fall, when the city announced it would open Pathways on Second Street, officials said they were optimistic Berkeley would be able to secure a $1.9 million federal grant to pay for 50 “cabin-based tiny homes” for “longer, transitional stays” that would be built in a second phase of construction. In Tuesday’s memo, staff wrote that the city learned in January it did not get the federal grant, and that tiny home plans will be “indefinitely suspended for lack of funding.”

In March, the city chose Oakland-based Bay Area Community Services to run the center, and awarded the agency a 13-month $2.44 million contract. That is set to pay for the 45-bed program, three full-time housing navigators, two full-time outreach workers who will visit “Berkeley encampments and fill … bed vacancies directly from encampments,” and 8.8 full-time site staff to run the 24/7 shelter and provide one meal a day.

A scene from last weekend’s work party at Pathways. Photo: Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s office

The contract includes $1.9 million from the General Fund, $200,000 in Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool funds, $300,000 in Alameda County Housing and Community Development money, and $40,000 in private donations.

“The BACS contract budgets for 100% success,” according to the staff report, “but conservatively assumes that 75% of program guests will successfully exit to permanent housing, with an average length between program enrollment and housing move-in of 6 months.”

The contract money is on top of the $400,000 council set aside last year to build the facility. But the biggest investment, according to the staff report, will be to get people housed.

“The single largest line item in the budget is for flexible housing subsidies, to rapidly rehouse program guests and provide an opportunity for permanent housing to every program client,” staff wrote.

According to the staff report, council authorized services to begin at the center March 27, but that involved “highly temporary accommodations such as port-a-potties and congregate bungalow tents for sleeping.” Staff updated the design to offer “showers, flushable toilets, climate-controlled sleeping portables, full-service laundry facilities, and running water in a kitchenette,” which set back the opening date and bumped up the price tag. No explanation was provided in the staff report for the reason for the change, other than “a better program environment for clients.”

These “more permanent amenities” resulted in “a significant increase in projected water and energy consumption,” according to the staff report. The city originally had planned to use “fuel generators and water tanks refilled by truck delivery” to address the need, but this became environmentally and financially infeasible with the improved amenities, according to the staff report.

It then became cheaper to install “in-ground water, in-ground sewer, and electrical connections for the trailers” — and to delay the opening by three months, according to the staff report. The earlier plan would have cost $700,000 annually to service the improved amenities. Now that water, sewer and electrical connections have been installed, however, it is estimated to cost $381,000 for the same period. (It was unclear in the report whether that sum included construction and installation costs.)

Council said it has received $100,000 in private donations to help with the project. While $40,000 of that money went to start-up costs, including furniture and computer equipment, “Another $10,000 was allocated to providing laundry facilitates at Pathways and the remaining $50,000 was allocated to site improvements and beautification.”

Landscape design for beautification. Image: Garden Architecture

As a result, “site improvements” have included “landscaping, exterior furnishings, sun control, fence screening, entry elements, and hard surface improvements,” with West Berkeley architectural firm Garden Architecture donating its design and installation know-how.

In addition to the laundry and storage space, the site includes two trailers with sleeping accommodations, a trailer for staff offices and meeting space, a restroom and shower trailer, a “welcome hut” for intake and private meetings, and a “gathering space with a kitchenette for meals and space for recreation, relaxation, and community meetings.”

What happens after the 13-month contract with BACS ends remains to be seen, according to the staff report.

“Council could decide to fund a second year of operations at the STAIR Center, and/or expand the program to include additional components or serve more clients,” staff wrote.

As an information report, the item is not slated for action Tuesday night, but it could be placed on a future agenda if action is needed.

Mayor Arreguín said on Twitter that the need for June 16-17 work party volunteers and Pathways donations remains. Last weekend, he wrote in a blog post on his website, “Residents, volunteers from Berkeley Rotary and city staff spent two days painting, putting in landscaping and AstroTurf and other touches for the new center.” But there’s still more to do.

Some advocates for those on the streets have said they don’t think Pathways is the best use of the city’s money, and that it won’t work to help those who need assistance most. Others have questioned how the focus on Pathways will impact the rest of the city’s approach to homeless services, such as its centralized Hub intake center, and how the city will afford everything it hopes to accomplish. But Pathways proponents say they believe the new program will make a significant difference in Berkeley.

“Pathways marks the first step in our plan to shelter all of Berkeley’s homeless residents within 5 years,” the mayor wrote in a recent blog post. “Together we can help the least fortunate in our community get shelter and permanent housing, and put their lives back on track.”

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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...