The “low-barrier” Pathways project facility on Second St. opened in June. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The “low-barrier” Pathways project facility on Second St. opened in June. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The new Pathways project that aims to speed up the way in which homeless people find housing has placed 20 people in living spaces in the three months that it has been open, the City Council learned Tuesday night.

While Berkeley city staff cautioned that it was too soon to draw conclusions about the entire project from the early statistics, City Council members were visibly pleased that so many people formerly experiencing chronic homelessness had already found permanent places to live. The City Council had taken a gamble in voting unanimously to fund the $2.4 million Navigation Center, known as either the Pathways project or STAIR, at Second Street between Cedar and Virginia.

“It’s outstanding we have already housed 20 people,” said City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn. “We have only been open three months.”

“We’ve done a really amazing thing here, haven’t we?” said City Councilwoman Linda Maio. Her district houses the STAIR Center.

The center opened its doors on June 27 and was soon filled with people who had been living on the streets in West Berkeley. The shelter, which can hold 45 people at a time, was designed to draw people who may have been resistant to services in the past. It is a “low-barrier” shelter, meaning there are no curfews, people do not have to be sober to stay there, they can bring their pets, and the dorms are co-ed, meaning couples can sleep together.

A small pocket garden in the new STAIR Center. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

The shelter was designed to be nurturing. People can sleep as long as they like; there are no strict times to get up and out. There are casual places to sit and gather and trees and plants are located throughout the center. There are washers and dryers and a kitchen. The idea is to provide a respite from the streets.

Once people start living at the shelter, they are offered services to help them transition into housing. There are caseworkers on site to help people apply for government benefits, look for work and housing. The clients have access to a $540,000 fund that will help them pay the rent for up to nine months.

Before anyone was let into the shelter, they were assessed about their willingness to look for permanent housing, which can be a laborious process, Peter Radu, the city’s homeless service coordinator, told the council. That willingness to put in the effort to get off the street may account for the early successes, he said.

Radu presented some statistics about the clients in the center. They were collected on Aug. 14, six weeks after the center opened:

  • The demographics reflect the demographics Alameda County collected in its 2017 Point in Time survey. Forty-seven percent of the clients are African-American, 34% of the clients are white, 13% are of multiple races and 6% are American Indian or Alaska Native.
  • The majority of the clients — 66% — are male. Thirty-four percent are female and there is at least one client who is gender non-binary.
  • Most of those at the Pathways Center are older, reflecting a trend. Thirty-eight percent of the clients are older than 55. The average age is 49 years old. The youngest was 27; the oldest 78.
  • Many of the clients self-reported disabilities and they reported them in higher numbers than in the Point in Time survey. Fifty-five percent of the clients reported they had mental-health problems. Twenty-eight percent said they had drug or alcohol problems. Twenty-eight percent said they had a chronic health condition and 17% said they had a developmental disability.
  • When they were interviewed as they entered the center, the average length of time the clients had been homeless was five and a half years. Eleven had been homeless for more than ten years, and one had been homeless for 34 consecutive years.

As of Aug. 14, the STAIR center had served about 53 people. By Oct. 9, 20 had gotten permanent housing. Two had returned to live with relatives. Many of the others are now living in shared housing where they rent a bedroom. The first five clients all found housing in Berkeley, said Radu. The former clients are paying an average of $1,285 for a one-bedroom apartment, he said.

One client did leave the Pathways project to return to the streets.

In preparing for the presentation to the City Council, the city’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department conducted interviews with a handful of clients and staff and found some positives about the program and some negatives, Radu said.

Importantly, the clients felt respected and treated like adults as they were able to make their own decisions about when to come and go, he said. They also said the staff listened to their opinions.

“The clients said they felt their voice being heard and was included in key decision points,” said Radu.

The clients also liked the fact that the staff created a culture in which everyone assumed that housing would be found, according to the interviews. Being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel made them optimistic, said Radu.

Staff bought the client work boots. He wore them to the interview and got the job.

The clients were also appreciative that the staff had flexibility in how to spend some of the program money. For example, one client got a job interview where he was expected to have work boots. The interview was the following day so there was no time for the client to apply for funds from a job-preparedness program. So the staff bought the client the work boots. He wore them to the interview and got the job, said Radu.

Some other issues came out in the interviews too. Some female clients were uncomfortable in the coed dorms. People who were trying to stay sober were uncomfortable that others were walking around drunk or high.

The clients have also only been allowed to bring in two bags to Pathways, which is not enough, they told the interviewers. City Council members urged Radu to find an extra trailer so clients could store more of their things.

And many of the clients felt that the staff was not available enough. Radu said that in the beginning, there were many staff meetings, which made caseworkers and outreach workers less available than was optimal. This has changed, he said.

One challenge is that every county is trying to beef up its homeless services and there are not enough workers to go around. Pathways has at times been short-staffed, too.

“Hiring in this economy has been difficult for all our nonprofits,” said Radu. He said Berkeley may have to come up with more funds to “backfill” hiring.

The lack of low-cost housing in Berkeley and surrounding cities is a huge impediment to transitioning the clients, too, said Radu.

The lack of low-cost housing in Berkeley and surrounding cities is a huge impediment to transitioning clients.

The question of money for Pathways is a big one as city officials only identified funding for one year, Mayor Jesse Arreguín pointed out. Berkeley needs to find more money to keep the program going — and to expand it to serve 100 people at a time, he said.

“We want to scale it up so we can serve more people because we have 1,000 people on the streets,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to get people off the harsh streets and into housing.”

Arreguín suggested that because Pathways was so successful, all of Berkeley’s shelters should be converted into low-barrier shelters with few rules.

It was clear by the conversation that many City Council members consider housing the unhoused a moral imperative, even if it is expensive. Hahn called homelessness “a human rights abuse.”

“Rehousing people, addressing a human rights abuse is not going to be cheap,” Hahn said.

Getting more people into housing means Berkeley can also focus more on those who are left in the streets and those are the ones with the ingrained substance abuse and mental-health problems, said Maio.

Wengraf asked if the people at the STAIR center can work. She would like to create a jobs program to help employ them.

Radu said most of them can work and want to work. About a quarter of the clients are too vulnerable and are on SSI and cannot work. But the rest have not been homeless for so long that they are unemployable, he said.

The city is in the process of creating a grander plan, one that will help the approximately 1,000 unhoused people on the streets into housing. That plan will be presented to the council later in the year.

City Councilman Kriss Worthington praised Mayor Arreguín for tackling homelessness and making it a priority. When he was elected mayor in 2016, people regarded the issue as “a lose-lose proposition,”Worthington said. Yet Arreguín persisted and was able to lead the council to a unanimous vote of trying the Pathways project. Worthington also commended the city manger, Dee Williams-Ridley, for making the project happen.

“When the City Council said, ‘do this impossible thing, double the number  of homeless beds,’ she did,” he said.

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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 Created California, published in November...