People set up for the night at Berkeley’s emergency shelter on Ninth Street. Photo: Moni Law
People set up for the night at Berkeley’s emergency shelter on Ninth Street. Photo: Moni Law

Berkeley’s emergency winter shelter is becoming a summer shelter. The city has decided to keep the Ninth Street facility open another two months, through the end of August. 

In addition, on Tuesday, the City Council allocated $400,000 in emergency shelter funds in the new city budget, paving the way for the shelter to potentially continue operating, possibly in a new location, after August.

Berkeley funds a winter shelter every year, to offer people who sleep on the streets refuge from the rain and wind. This is the first year the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter (BESS) has occupied the old Premier Cru warehouse at 1925 Ninth St. Lately, the site has been reaching its 90-person capacity nightly, said David Stegman, executive director of the Dorothy Day House, which operates BESS.

The shelter, where visitors sleep on rows of thin mattresses and eat hot meals, has served about 600 different people this year, said Stegman. That means the facility has reached a significant portion of the homeless population in Berkeley, estimated at 972 people at last count.

Some of those residents and advocates came to the City Council meeting Tuesday to support the $400,000 allocation.

The Ninth Street shelter “has been a godsend to me,” said one resident. “The staff there treat you like you’re a family member. It’s really helped me focus on what I need to focus on.” 

The shelter was initially set to close in April, then the city found funds to extend it through May, June and finally August. At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he wanted to earmark a chunk of money for an extended emergency shelter program after the summer, once a site has been identified.

“It has been popular to many homeless residents who have not accessed other city shelters, and deserves to continue,” Arreguín said.

The Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter occupies a section of the old Premier Cur complex on Ninth and University. Photo: Gary Wayne

Stegman said the council made the right choice.

“This program is just too valuable to just stop it,” he said. “We’re going to do the best we can, as we’ve been doing all along.”

Dorothy Day has implemented some changes in how BESS operates, in response to neighbor complaints about health and safety hazards. Until recently, people had lined up each day to claim spaces at the shelter long before the building opened in the evening. Now, 60 residents are selected through a lottery system as they leave the shelter in the morning, to reserve another spot for that night. Those people can store their belongings in the building during the day, and no longer need to start lining up early in the afternoon. Only 30 people are let in on a first-come-first-served basis now.

Stegman and many advocates hope the $400,000 fund could turn BESS into a year-round shelter. Currently, according to Stegman, it costs $20,000 per month to operate the shelter and $10,000 per month for maintenance and facility needs.

A year-long contract would give Dorothy Day the stability it needs to improve services and the structure of the program, Stegman said. The staff would like to section off a space for women who want privacy, and to improve accessibility for residents with disabilities. Dorothy Day is also interested in trying to target services at chronically homeless people with the highest needs, Stegman said.

A longer term shelter could also include amenities like the features at the new STAIR center on Second Street, which opened Tuesday as well.

The new $2.44 million shelter, which has a smaller capacity than BESS, “has showers, a washer/dryer, a kitchen and cubicles. Why wouldn’t we want to provide that to all homeless people?” Stegman said.

The location of the emergency shelter program is uncertain after August, though Dorothy Day hopes it can remain in the Premier Cru warehouse.

Berkeley purchased the old wine retail complex in 2017, and the City Council will review proposals submitted by prospective tenants on July 24. The city plans to convert the site into affordable housing eventually.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...