As city officials vacate Old City Hall, homeless people will move in on a temporary basis this winter. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

At its final meeting at Old City Hall, the Berkeley City Council selected the next tenants for the historic building: homeless people seeking refuge from the elements this winter.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of using the site as this year’s Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter. Next council meeting, Dec. 4, officials will vote on approving $60,000 for the shelter, which will operate for up to 45 nights this winter when it’s raining or under 40 degrees.

Dorothy Day House will run the shelter, as it has at other sites in previous years. Old City Hall can support 25 to 35 people nightly, city staff said.

Councilman Kriss Worthington proposed the new usage for Old City Hall along with Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, who said the city should act with urgency.

“Tonight it’s raining,” Davila said at the meeting. “We have to find solutions to home the unhoused.”

Dorothy Day has already run an emergency shelter out of the North Berkeley Senior Center for several days this month, but that building will close for renovations at end of the year. Another previous shelter location, the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, is still recovering from a massive fire in 2016, and other city sites are only available on certain days or for limited hours.

“The problem with that is we have mats that would have to be moved from site to site,” David Stegman, executive director of Dorothy Day House, told Berkeleyside. Previously, homeless people had to keep track of the winter shelter’s shifting location, or had to wait until 10:30 p.m. to enter a site after evening programs concluded.

“I believe this was almost meant to be,” Stegman said of Tuesday’s decision. “This consolidates it into one site. People who go the first few nights will know exactly where and when it operates.”

Stegman said he toured the property with Worthington and Davila, and is excited about the potential of Old City Hall.

“There will be no active use of this building, so I do think this item is timely, given that it’s going to largely be boarded up and vacant after we move out,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said before the vote.

The Berkeley City Council held its final meeting in the deteriorating chambers in the Maudelle Shirek Building on Nov. 27. Photo: Emilie Raguso (file photo)

Old City Hall, or the Maudelle Shirek Building, is a landmarked and once-stately property that has been deteriorating for some time. Major seismic safety issues prompted the city to begin looking for an alternative public meeting site years ago. Following lengthy negotiations, the city and Berkeley Unified School District finally reached an agreement in October to share the school board’s meeting room on Addison Street at Bonar. Berkeley is planning to use some of the money raised by the sale of Measure T1 bonds to study what to do with the old unstable structure.

Some community members Tuesday questioned why, then, the building is considered safe for people to sleep in.

“How can we vacate the public and bring in the homeless folks in good conscience?” asked a neighbor.

Arreguín noted that the city has long used the Veterans Building on Center Street, which has similar seismic issues, as a site for shelter and services. There is a sign at the entrance announcing the building’s vulnerability during an earthquake, and a similar warning will be posted at the new shelter.

Stegman said Dorothy Day has “absolutely no concerns” about the seismic safety of Old City Hall.

“Do you think homeless people on the streets are concerned about that?” he said.

Indeed, several people connected to the homeless community implored the council to use the building for the shelter.

“Due to family decisions I have been out in the cold and wet weather” in the past, said a speaker affiliated with the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center. “I’d like to urge you to be sympathetic, because I never imagined as a college graduate that I’d be out there on the streets…Bottom line is, this is a facility being underutilized, and there are people in need.”

People wait to enter the previous Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter at 1925 Ninth St., which was extended and open nightly for months. Photo: Moni Law

Some neighbors said they were concerned about how the shelter would impact the surrounding area, especially given the high volume of homelessness services already located nearby, and asked for more opportunities to give input.

“We have impacts from all of these uses,” said John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association. He said homelessness services should be “distributed around the city,” instead of clustered downtown.

In Stegman’s view, the proximity to other homeless services is a bonus. Along with a nightly Dorothy Day shelter, there is a daily drop-in program run by BOSS at the Veterans Building, about a block away from Old City Hall, which opens at 8 a.m. The Old City Hall shelter will likely run until 7 a.m., city staff said, so the people using both facilities won’t be stuck in the rain for long.

“We are trending in a very positive direction,” said Stegman of Tuesday’s decision combined with the recent allocation of funding and identification of a longer term location for the shelter at the Veterans Building.

That shelter had initially been located in the old Premier Cru warehouse on Ninth Street last winter. Although that program was also called the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter, it was open every night, and its tenure was extended multiple times before the council allocated $400,000 for emergency shelter services and it settled in for a longer run at the Veterans Building. Now it’s called the Dorothy Day House Shelter.

Since that shelter moved into the Veterans Building in October, there “have been no EMT calls, no police calls” and no psychiatric holds, Stegman said. It was quite a different story at Ninth Street — where there was a much larger population, more rotation among tenants, and mats instead of designated beds — where operators had to call the police or ambulances multiple times weekly, and neighbors complained about the disturbance.

Berkeley’s Measure P, the increased transfer tax approved by voters this month, will generate more funds to further expand homelessness facilities and services. A committee will be established to look into potential uses for the revenue.

The $60,000 for the Old City Hall shelter would come from the already allocated $400,000 or from upcoming state money. Tuesday’s agenda item said $31,000 had already been reserved for this winter’s contract, but Worthington said it turned out those funds had been used to fx up the Veterans Building for the other shelter.

At Old City Hall, details still need to be hashed out before the shelter doors can open, Worthington said. It has not yet been decided where in the building people will sleep, and whether use of the finicky elevator will be required.

Some council members criticized the lack of detail in Worthington and Davila’s original proposal.

Harrison, who represents the downtown district where the building is located, said she supported the plan but didn’t blame her constituents who wanted more information or were worried about the impact.

“We tend to think of this issue in a really bipolar way, like a morality play. You’re either for helping the homeless or against helping the homeless,” Harrison said. “Will there be storage? Will there be toilets? How will the lines work? I think neighbors have a right to know.” 

The vote Tuesday allows the site to be used through April. The city has discussed converting the building into non-profit office space in the longer term, but the council tabled that decision Tuesday.

“The big question of what do we do with this building is something that might require a little bit more in-depth study,” said Councilwoman Sophie Hahn.

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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,...