Lucy Lim travels to the North Berkeley Senior Center from Albany twice a week – for line dancing and Italian classes. As we sat in the center’s outer courtyard recently two elderly gentlemen – one homeless, one a visitor – bump into each other and square up. The shouting match lasts a few minutes before two security men lumber out the front entrance and calm them down.
“They’re pretty good at cooling them down – I think this is as bad as it gets,” Lim says of the relationship between the seniors who use the center during the day and the homeless residents who sleep there at night.
On Sept. 1, the seasonal Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter at Ninth Street, which housed 90 homeless residents, closed its doors after almost nine months. More than 600 different people stayed at the shelter in that period, out of a total homeless population of 972, prompting the operators and volunteers to suggest it was one of the most successful shelter programs in Berkeley.
While Berkeley officials look for another quasi-permanent center, the city decided to establish temporary shelters at the senior center and the Frances Albrier Community Center in San Pablo Park. The two shelters switch in and out on a two-week basis. Each of the temporary facilities can only hold 60 guests and is only open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m, although guests have to leave by 6 a.m. Unlike at the BESS shelter, guests cannot store their possessions during the day. The sense of community that existed at the Ninth Street shelter is harder to create at a space where hours are so limited, said David Stegman, the director of the Dorothy Day House, which runs the homeless shelter.
Over the last couple of weeks, the seniors and homeless residents have adjusted to one another.
John Gaona, who deals with complaints and manages the shelter’s relationship with the senior center, said they have tried to be strict about the rules. The privilege of a bed does not come with free license, he said. “To keep it, you gotta earn it… Either follow the rules, or there’s someone waiting for your bed.”
Each morning, sleepers are awoken at 5 a.m. to be out in an hour. The shelter has to be clean by 7 a.m. when the building resumes its usual purpose, and the seniors who make use of it start to arrive.
While there are problem residents, conflicts are relatively uncommon and there have been success stories. Jackson Hardamon, the facility’s night monitor, recalls a guest who transitioned from the shelter to becoming an active member of the senior community.
“The next time I saw him outside the shelter, he was getting assistance from one of my co-workers getting a housing application filled out,” Hardamon remembers. “I believe that a lot of our staff may have engaged in situations like this that may have broadened their perspective.”
Lim was also positive about the center’s second use. “Sometimes it gets a bit dirty but they really try their best”, she said. “I’m all in favor of using the facilities — no one else is using it at night.”
Staff members are vigilant about potential problems. For those who do not respect the rules, tolerance is low.
“It’s a really painful process – you get to come with us, you don’t,” Gaona said. “If it were up to us, we’d jam them in – that’s the hardest part of our job. But the rules are the rules and that has to be as even and fair as you can make it.”
On a recent morning, one of the shelter’s listed members had taken too long in the bathroom and missed the 6 a.m. deadline to leave. “I informed her she wouldn’t be staying here tonight,” Gaona said. “Just because you’re a permanent guest here doesn’t give you carte blanche.”
“Oh yeah, we have a bad girl list and a bad boy list,” he added. “It has happened on occasion that we can’t host a guest.”
The shelter makes a conscious effort to host the most vulnerable. Diana has advanced arthritis in both feet – her swollen legs hold about 15 pounds of water. She had just spent her first night in the shelter. “For now it doesn’t get better,” she told me. “While I’m here it’s the worst it can ever get.”
Patty Clark has been staying between shelters for over a month but has no permanent place at the senior center. Even when she does get a bed, her broken foot makes life much more grueling. “I’m so tired of doing this,” she said. “Getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning – it hurts. You don’t have nowhere to go, no one to call, no one to see.”
It helps that many among the staff have been homeless. “It’s a connection that matters – an empathy,” Gaona said.
Others on the staff see that homelessness may not be an unthinkable outcome for them. Hardamon, a student at Berkeley City College, lives with his mother in South Berkeley. With rental assistance and Calfresh food stamps they get by, but he worries that were it not for that safety net, he would either be in youth transitional housing, or in the shelter himself. His only hope of paying rent is to work overnight shifts at the shelter.
“I ask for extra hours,” he says. “I can save for a car, alleviate my transport needs — then I could move out of the Bay Area.”
For Gaona, the plight of his guests is all too familiar. In early 2015, he lost his job in Modesto as an advertising manager at a grocery chain. On April 29, 2016, he boarded an Amtrak train to Berkeley with just a gym bag, rucksack and his bike. He rode to People’s Park, where he spent his first night as a homeless man.
“There was a sign at the park saying not to go in after 10 p.m. I sat at the periphery all night – I’m a rule follower.” The next day he was so tired, he decided to bend his principles.
While the $18.01 per hour Gaona receives from the city for his work at the shelter enables him to rent a small space, his lease will only last a month or so more. After this, he says, he may return to life in the shelter.
Max Brimelow is a first-year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.