On Saturday morning, 90 people will file out of the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter on Ninth Street, their assorted belongings in tow. Where they go next has been the topic of many tense discussions over the past several weeks and, with one night left at the current site, the operators have gotten their answer. Once it leaves Ninth Street, the shelter will spend two weeks at the North Berkeley Senior Center, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Hearst Avenue, and then the two weeks after that at the Frances Albrier Community Center at San Pablo Park. The sites will each serve about 60 people a night, and will be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly in September. “We’ll use that time to evaluate [a] more appropriate long-term facility,” said Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko on Friday. For the shelter’s guests, as operator Dorothy Day refers to them, any indoor site is better than the alternative they were once fearing — the streets. But many of the guests and employees — most homeless people themselves — had more recently been hoping to next settle into a spot where they might be able to count on a bed for a much longer stretch of time. In June the Berkeley City Council allocated a sizable $400,000 to extend the emergency shelter, which had opened on Ninth Street at the former Premier Cru warehouse in December as a temporary winter refuge. The operation was extended multiple times after that, up until the end of August, when it has to close shop due to state-imposed time limits, according to the city (Berkeleyside has requested information on that law from the city multiple times), and to make way for the Berkeley Food Network. Some people associated with the shelter have said the facility is not equipped to become a permanent shelter regardless. Earlier this month, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, interim deputy city manager Paul Buddenhagen and others held a community brainstorming session to identify possible sites for a potential year-round shelter. They mayor said the city had the money in hand and the strong desire to continue the shelter, but had struggled to find a location. The city representatives seemed interested in the suggestion of the site of the current men’s shelter, which is moving out of the Veterans Building on Center Street at the end of September and going to another Berkeley Food and Housing site. David Stegman, executive director of Dorothy Day, the nonprofit that operates the emergency shelter, said he’d been told the city would check out the Veterans Building with the intention of possibly moving the shelter there sometime after September, though Chakko did not confirm that. “We’re considering a variety of options,” he said. “At this point, our goal is to set up” the two new sites.
Shelter advocates have also pushed for the West Berkeley Senior Center, though city representatives have said they don’t want to reverse the work that has been done to prepare it to house seniors displaced from the North Berkeley center during upcoming renovations there. The North Berkeley Senior Center and the Frances Albrier Community Center are both familiar to Stegman’s crew, as Dorothy Day runs an additional winter emergency shelter, open only during rainy and very cold nights, out of those facilities. “The positive thing is that the shelter will be able to run continuously, and not miss a day. I look at the positives,” Stegman said Friday shortly after getting the final word on the site change from city staff. He said he’s happy the new plan will likely allow Dorothy Day to retain all the 22 currently or formerly homeless people who are employed as shelter monitors. Because they’re no longer seasonal employees, they will now be paid $18 an hour, he said. “That’s a terrific salary for them. It gives them a chance to stay employed, build their resumes and get on their feet,” Stegman said. Despite the relief, there will also be a lot lost in the transition, the director said. “The whole sense of community we’ve built — you can’t duplicate that when you go to a place at 7 p.m. then get up and leave in the morning,” Stegman said. “Here there are people gathering in small groups, talking and eating together. It’s a whole village. People are able to stay till 9 a.m. to look for housing and things like that. The trust and respect — in the shelter community that’s hard to garner.” The guests also enjoy full, hot meals each night, visits from service providers and storage options on Ninth Street, amenities that will either disappear or be limited at the new facilities, where programming occurs during the day and early evening, Stegman said. The people who sleep at the Ninth Street shelter haven’t been told about the new plan yet. The staff there is waiting until Saturday morning, at which point 60 individuals will be handed vouchers allowing them to sleep at the North Berkeley Senior Center that night. This is a departure from the current system, where there is a lottery each morning among guests to guarantee 60 people a spot that night, so they can leave their stuff at the shelter and come back later. The other 30 slots are provided on a first-come, first-served basis to people who line up.
For the new system, Dorothy Day has identified the 60 highest-need people they’ve served, in staff’s view. If those people do not show up to the shelter with their vouchers, the operator will go down a longer list and reach out to other homeless people for the next night. According to Dorothy Day, almost 800 different individuals have come through the Ninth Street shelter since December — for context, the loose estimate for Berkeley’s homeless population is 1,000 people — and the organization has tried to classify them all based on their need level and keep track of their contact information. Dorothy Day and city staff also plan to meet after a week to check in.
Stegman said he and his staff can adjust to the last-minute change: “Honestly we’ve always run on a day-to-day basis, that’s our philosophy.”
But he’s predicting confusion, disappointment and “chaos” from the “guests” when they learn the news.
At public meetings, some of those guests and their advocates have spoken about how much the Ninth Street shelter has helped them. Stegman said an experience he had with one of them recently illustrated that. The woman had been a frequent guest the year before too, when the shelter was on Second Street, and wasn’t a happy one. She repeatedly wrote letters of complaint about Stegman and the shelter to city staff, he said. This year, though, she noticed he was wearing a UC Berkeley jacket, and came back the very next day with a card thanking the shelter staff and a blue-and-gold scarf she’d knitted in that one night for Stegman.
“I have never taken a gift, you don’t do that. But I absolutely gratefully took this. It goes to the heart of it — these people are good people,” he said. “These two-month extensions beg the question, When will the city go for the commitment of a permanent, year-round facility?”
In a memo to the City Council on Friday, Buddenhagen acknowledged that the upcoming two-week shifts are not “ideal.” But he said that’s all the new facilities can support, and said staff will spend the month looking for a longer-term move.
Ed. note: A quote in this story was updated for clarification.