A small pocket garden in the new STAIR Center, which will open its doors to clients on Wednesday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The city of Berkeley threw open the doors of its $2.44 million shelter for the homeless on Tuesday and it felt like a community celebration.

While the bulk of the funding for the shelter on Second Street (between Cedar and Virginia) in West Berkeley came from city and county sources, the project would not have happened without the help of numerous businesses, professionals, service organizations and individuals who contributed their time and money, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said right before he and other city officials cut the blue ribbon dedicating the STAIR center. (STAIR is an acronym for stability, navigation and respite, and the city is describing the facility as Berkeley’s first navigation center.)

More than 175 volunteers came together on two consecutive weekends in June to paint, haul and fill more than 80 galvanized metal planters with plants. Numerous city departments — from public works to the city manager’s office to health, housing and community services, the parks department, the fire department and more — spent hours developing and building the space. The City Council also gave its full support, said Arreguín.

The result is the transformation of a once barren and stark industrial block next to the railroad tracks in West Berkeley into an oasis of sorts. When the 45 people characterized as “chronically homeless” (meaning they have been living on the streets for more than a year) start moving in on Wednesday, they will enter a campus of portable trailers whose hard edges are softened by huge bamboo-filled planters and colorful banners flapping in the wind. There will be showers, laundry facilities, a place to eat and gather, a welcome center, and two dormitories with twin beds and moveable screens that offer privacy. The new residents will also be able to plant vegetables or gather in various “pocket parks,” with wooden benches and tables, bamboo “walls,” artificial turf and colorful shades.

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“We see more and more people who are living on the streets who are in need of housing,” said Arreguín to a crowd of about 100 people. “The goal of this facility is to transform lives, to make a significant impact in addressing our homeless crisis, and to move people off the street and into self-sufficiency. We are so excited that we are at this point where we are going to be opening our doors to our first set of clients tomorrow. This will make a significant impact on the lives of people in this community. ”

City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who has been very involved with the project, said the STAIR Center reflects the urgency Berkeley feels about the plight of those living on the streets.

“Your City Council believes homelessness is a human-rights abuse,” she said. “We are committed to the humanitarian imperative of getting people housed, but also giving them relief from the harshness of life on the streets.”

The STAIR Center is part of Berkeley’s comprehensive Pathways project that aims to reduce homelessness. The plan was adopted by the City Council in 2017. While Berkeley already provides an array of services to those without a permanent home, and has about 166 shelter beds, the new facility is different than previous Berkeley programs. It is modeled, in part, on San Francisco’s navigation centers.

The idea is to offer a low-barrier, service-rich facility that will attract people who are dissatisfied with the traditional shelter experience and who have not had much luck in putting their lives back together. Unlike most shelters, where people can only enter in the late afternoon or evening and must leave by 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., the STAIR Center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People can bring their pets, can store their belongings, do their laundry, shower and sleep adjacent to their friends or partners. They will get at least one meal a day (although that may increase) and will have a place to seek respite from the streets.

Planters with bamboo around the STAIR Center. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Beds at the new Berkeley STAIR Center. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Laundry facilities at STAIR Center. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Most importantly, there will be services on site, meaning the residents won’t have to trek to offices scattered around Berkeley for help, according to Jamie Almanza, executive director of the Oakland-based Bay Area Community Services, or BACS, which will run and manage the program. There will be mental-health counselors, people to assist with getting SSI, job counselors, drug and alcohol counselors, housing counselors, family reunification experts, as well as other services. The city has also allocated $540,000 in flexible housing subsidies to help people secure places to live.

“This is the first step of intervention,” she said. “When a person is living here with services there’s a much higher success rate.”

The center can house 45 people at a time and they can stay for up to six months, so Berkeley is expecting the STAIR Center will help about 90 people a year.

BACS, as well as The Hub, Berkeley’s coordinated intake point for the homeless, have been working together and have started to reach out to the homeless to see if some might want to come to the STAIR Center, said Paul Buddenhagen, the city’s director of Health, Housing and Community Services. The city wants to bring in people who are “ready to seriously engage” with the process of getting off the streets, he said. The plan is to interact first with the people without homes in West Berkeley.

While those who work with the homeless support the STAIR Center, they say it alone will not solve Berkeley’s homeless problem. And they question the cost. At Arreguín’s state-of-the-city talk Monday night, a few people in the audience held up signs suggesting the new homeless center is just one piece of the puzzle. Barbara Brust, the founder of the community group Consider the Homeless, said while the new center will help, it will be less effective than BESS, the winter emergency shelter on Ninth Street in the old Premier Cru building that can sleep 90 people a night. It is scheduled to close on June 30. Brust was passing around a petition Monday evening that asked that the winter shelter be kept open longer.

Arreguín acknowledged Tuesday that, as terrific as STAIR is, it is only part of the solution. He said his office is implementing other ways to reduce homelessness, such as asking the City Council to place a $135 million housing bond on the November ballot. He will also ask the City Council tonight to authorize an additional $400,000 to keep the winter shelter open a few more months.

The opening of the STAIR center represents a huge political accomplishment for Arreguín, as well as for Hahn, who has worked closely with the mayor, and City Councilwoman Linda Maio, in whose district STAIR is located, and who has also worked diligently on the project. When Arreguín was elected in 2016, he declared that he would make the homeless issue a priority. Working with City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, he has changed the path of the city government to focus on it and affordable housing.

Seeing people living on the streets, in sprawling, dirty and dangerous encampments around town — from Second Street to underneath freeway overpasses, to near City Hall, — has affected many Berkeley residents, as evidenced by the volunteer power that went into creating the STAIR Center.

Arreguín thanked a number of entities that assisted with the project. He gave a special shout-out to Robert Trachtenberg, a landscape architect, who firm, Garden Architecture, designed and oversaw the planning of the complex, a process that took hundreds of hours. Trachtenberg later told Berkeleyside that he tried to create a “cohesive type of streetscape that would evoke a real sense of place, perhaps like a small village.” Trachtenberg’s firm tried to do this by creating an allée of large timber bamboo running from one end of the site to the other, and surrounding the entire site with black bamboo that will grow dense and will enclose the space.

Arreguín also thanked UC Berkeley Professor Sam Davis, an expert in designing homeless shelters, who helped design the complex. Davis told Berkeleyside that he tried to create a “humane” place where people could interact with others in the communal spaces or sit back and watch in the small courtyard-like gardens.

Lehigh Hanson, the asphalt plant next to the STAIR Center, donated the asphalt used to pave the street, said Arreguín. Other companies that participated included Abrams/Millikan, the developers of Fourth Street; Jamestown LLP, another Fourth Street developer; Jetton Construction, McCutcheon Construction, Mueller Nicholls, Trachtenberg Architects and Read Investments. One individual, who asked to remain anonymous, donated $100,000.

Members of the supportive housing committee of the Berkeley Rotary Club helped get the site ready, and four of its members came to the dedication ceremony. Trudy Frei, who has been making socks for the homeless for years and stuffing them with chocolate before they are distributed, said she came to the ceremony because she has always been interested in the plight of people.

“I am very excited,” (by the STAIR project) she said. “It seems to fulfill what we need.”

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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...