The bright blue Multi-Agency Service Center is the new longer term site for Berkeley’s emergency shelter. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The bright blue Multi-Agency Service Center is the new longer term site for Berkeley’s emergency shelter. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On Monday evening, 52 homeless people settled into the basement of the Veterans Building in Downtown Berkeley, where they got a bunk bed, a sandwich and the promise of a hot shower.

For some of them, the site at 1931 Center St. is the fourth place they’ve slept in as many weeks. But the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter has finally found a longer-term home, the outcome of an emotional process involving public meetings, uncertainty, and temporary stays elsewhere.

“We’re grateful to have a much better place for our guests to feel comfortable and to be able to get the outreach teams in to help them transition” to housing, said Bob Whalen, program manager with Dorothy Day House, which operates the shelter.

The emergency shelter first opened on Ninth Street as a temporary refuge last winter. The city extended its stay there multiple times, until the 90 people who slept there nightly had to move out at the end of August — because the city said it was in violation of a law (Section 108.1 of the California Building Code) requiring temporary uses of buildings be limited to 180 days, and to allow the Berkeley Food Network to start its lease there.

In the meantime, the Berkeley City Council included $400,000 in the budget to keep an emergency shelter open much longer. The city tried to identify a location and solicited ideas at a meeting with frustrated and concerned community members on the eve of the Ninth Street closure. In September a scaled-down version of the shelter spent two weeks at the North Berkeley Senior Center and another two at the Frances Albrier Community Center.

Program Manager Bob Whalen shows the 52 bunks where residents will sleep and store their belongings. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The space in the Veterans Building is called the Multi-Agency Service Center because it hosts a number of homelessness programs. Until a few days ago, it was the site of Berkeley’s men’s shelter. When that shelter moved elsewhere at the end of September, city staff came in and made facility improvements, including painting, adding ventilation and tiles, and treating the site for bed bugs, in time for the emergency shelter to move in Monday, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

It is unclear exactly how long the shelter will be able to stay there, but the $400,000 in the budget should keep it there through sometime in the spring, according to Dorothy Day’s calculations.

“I’m just grateful to be somewhere that’s safe,” said shelter resident Denise Lyman on Monday, as she took in her new surroundings.

The space is an upgrade for Dorothy Day and the people it serves. At the Ninth Street shelter, people slept on mats on the ground, and there were no showers or laundry facilities like there are at the new site. The walls of the Multi-Agency Service Center are painted bright blue, and there are separate rooms — including an optional private room for women — filled with 52 bunk beds, which have built-in storage drawers that lock. There are also mats available for a few extra people the city could place in the shelter as needed, Whalen said.

“They did the best they could in the short time they had,” said Whalen of the city’s facility improvements. “It’s a lot more than we had. This is luxury.”

Each resident has been assigned a bunk bed. Initially, shelter slots were granted on a first-come-first-served basis, but now there is an official list of people who can stay there, which will only change when someone transitions out of the shelter. Previously, residents would need to pack up their bedding each night, but it can remain on the bunks now and free up storage space for other belongings.

One resident commented Monday that the group has become like a “family,” since the same cohort, more or less, has stayed together through each of the moves.

“These guys have put something together to make us feel human again,” said resident Ben Sims, of the Dorothy Day staff and the many homeless and formerly homeless people they employ to help run the shelter. “We get some people that are angry and violent. They know how to bring it to where no violence even happens. It’s not like other shelters — here they call us ‘guests.’”

Daniel Burk prepares food donations for the first dinner at the new shelter site. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The Multi-Agency Service Center is familiar territory for Dorothy Day, which has previously operated the kitchen there. Now it will be used to prepare breakfast and dinner for its residents each day. On Monday, Daniel Burk, who’s worked at the shelter since the day it opened on Ninth Street, was setting up sandwich and salad donations from the food recovery service Copia. A bowl of plums from the Alameda County Food Bank, and trays of raw vegetable and donuts, greeted people in the main room.

Not everyone had a positive reaction to the news of the shelter relocation.

In an email to constituents, City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who represents Downtown Berkeley, said her district already provides a disproportionate amount of homelessness services. She said she advocated for the West Berkeley Senior Center as a better and safer site for the shelter, but there were other uses planned for it.

“I was specifically hopeful that we could avoid continuing to use the Veterans’ Memorial Building as the building has been in a dilapidated and somewhat unhealthy state (mold and vermin have been found) and we have funded a study for using this historical building for other purposes,” she said.

Laundry and showers are new amenities for the residents, who were used to sleeping on mats at previous sites. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Speaking to Berkeleyside, Chakko emphasized that the emergency shelter is just one of many shelters and other homelessness services the city provides.

The emergency shelter is actually a bit of an anomaly, he said. Most homelessness services are provided through Berkeley’s coordinated entry system, called the Hub, where people most in need (those who have been homeless for a year or who have a disability) are prioritized for permanent housing. The new Pathways shelter is also intended to be a stepping stone to permanent housing, though it has its own eligibility requirements.

The “emergency” shelter is just that — something that started as a spur-of-the-moment sanctuary for people stuck in the rain. It has morphed into an ongoing residence for a set group of people, but they are not the people at the top of the city’s high-need list. Dorothy Day has built up relationships with many community agencies that work with their residents, but there is not an explicit structure in place to get them into permanent homes.

Even so, Whalen said, “It has a stabilizing effect, even something like this. They’re going to come in and they’re going to have a place to sleep.”

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,...