An encampment of homeless people at University Avenue and Frontage Road on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, after Caltrans and the CHP came to clear garbage and ask campers to move their belongings. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley actually has about 2,000 people experiencing homelessness during the year,  more than twice the 972 estimated in the last formal count, a long-awaited staff report concludes.

The larger number does not mean that Berkeley’s homeless population has doubled, according to Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman. Instead, it reflects the use of a different methodology that counts all the people who are homeless who might come in and out of the city over 365 rather than only one day.

To house all of them, the city would have to spend $31 million to $43 million annually by 2028. This is on top of the approximately $16 million Berkeley already spends on homeless services, wrote Peter Radu, Berkeley’s homeless services coordinator, in a report the Berkeley City Council is scheduled to discuss in late April.

The report found there to be “staggering” racial disparities among those who are affected by homelessness.

“This number [of people without homes] has been steadily growing at an average rate of 10% every two years and is highly disproportionate in its racial disparity: since 2006, 65% of homeless service users in Berkeley identify as Black or African American, compared to a general population of less than 10%,” according to the report.

Berkeley’s homeless population is growing. Source: City of Berkeley

The largest barrier preventing people from getting off the streets into permanent housing is a disability, either physical or mental, or an addiction, according to the report, titled the “1000 Person Plan to Address Homelessness.” Having a disability makes it 733% less likely to successfully exit homelessness than other factors, according to the report.

These challenges, combined with spiraling housing costs, make it increasingly difficult to reduce the number of people on the streets, the report states. While some people at risk for homelessness can be helped relatively easily with small sums that help them stay in their homes, a larger and larger number face huge obstacles to permanent housing, according to the city.

The city’s ability to help people without permanent shelter has “been declining over time,” according to the report. Berkeley is actually serving fewer unhoused people now then it did in 2014.

Resolving homelessness is a Council priority

When Jesse Arreguín was elected mayor in November 2016, he announced that eliminating homelessness would be a top priority. Working closely with City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, Arreguín and the council asked city staff in April 2017 to prepare a “1,000 person plan” to end homelessness. That number was based on the 2017 point-in-time count of the city’s homeless population. That is the number of homeless people counted by a group of volunteers and trained outreach workers on Jan.31, 2017.

The City Council also started a number of new initiatives to address the situation. In June 2018, the city launched the Pathways Project, an ambitious navigation center on Second Street in West Berkeley that provides housing for 45 people for up to six months, concentrated supportive services, and the ability to live with a partner or a pet. The council also allocated funds to expand the number of shelter beds in the city and set aside money to help people fight eviction, among other efforts.

Berkeley has about 305 shelter beds, with 45 of those allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis, said Chakko.  The other 260 beds are allocated by the HUB, Berkeley’s centralized intake point for those needed homeless services. They go to those the most in need and who are considered chronically homeless.

In FY 2019, Berkeley spent close to $20 million on providing homeless services. About $6.5 million came from its general fund, about $9.5 million came from regional, state, and federal funds and $3.9 million were one-time funds from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program, said Chakko. Those figures do not include time spent by the police and fire departments in homeless-related situations or the time and expense the public works department, parks department and neighborhood services spend on cleaning up trash from encampments.

Revenue from the recently-passed Measure P, which increased the property transfer tax for very high-end properties, should generate from $6 million to $8 million, according to city estimates.

Most extensive analysis ever of people who have used Berkeley’s homeless services

To prepare the report, the staff of the city’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department analyzed 10 years of data, or 42,500 individual records, from Alameda County’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), the most amount of data ever examined. Staff looked at everyone who had connected to the system through Berkeley.

The data delivered is sobering. Not only are African Americans disproportionally affected by homelessness, the number of people who say they have a disability has increased from 40% in 2006 to 68% in 2017.

“The population is increasingly comprised of those least likely to permanently end their homelessness with the services available,” according to the report.

The same people appear to be cycling in and out of services, the report states. In 2006, clients used homeless services an average of 1.4 times; that increased to 3.5 times in 2018, a 150% increase. Moreover, when they enter the system, they now spend almost three months in shelters. In 2006, they spent about a month before exiting to housing.

The surge means that Berkeley is helping fewer people each year, according to the report.  The average number of people served by each bed has dropped “from a high in 2011 of over 5 to under 3 by 2017.” (Since the data for the report was collected, Berkeley added the Pathways shelter and extended the time the Dorothy Day winter emergency shelter was open).

Source: City of Berkeley

Spiraling rents have only made the situation direr, according to the report. Between January 2015 and December 2017, average rents in the city increased 54%, with an average one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley now going for $2,581 a month, according to the report. The average person experiencing homelessness only has $628 in monthly income, according to the report.

Berkeley spends a great deal of money on “rapid rehousing,” which provides subsidies of up to two years to get people into housing. But when the subsidies run out, about 45% of those clients return to the streets, the report concludes.

Berkeley keeps track of how many people come through its system each year and exit to housing. Over the last 10 years, that has been about 400 people a year, said Radu. However, that statistic does not trace the type of housing people get into, said Chakko. While some may be permanent, others may just be finding a place to stay in a relative’s home.

The only way out of this situation, the staff report concluded, was to create a much larger supply of subsidized affordable housing.

“Without an intervention that focuses on creating permanent affordability in the housing market, all available evidence suggests that anything Berkeley does to address homelessness will not reduce it so long as present trends continue,” the report states.

Berkeley currently has 431 units of permanent supportive housing available, said Chakko. Tenants pay 30% of their income in rent and the federal government pays the rest. Berkeley is planning to build another 53 permanent supportive housing units in its Berkeley Way project for people who were previously homeless. Those will be part of a two-building complex that will also supply shelter beds and housing for low-income residents. Construction could begin at the end of 2019 or early 2020.

Berkeley is also about to get 40 new Section 8 housing vouchers, he said.

The report suggests that Berkeley must also examine the impact of its own local land use restrictions to see how they can be reformed to help address homelessness. The pace at which new housing is being built is too slow to have an impact on the homeless population, according to the report. “Berkeley should continue to streamline development approval processes and reform local policies to help increase the overall supply of housing available, including affordable housing mandated by inclusionary policies,” according to the report.”

If Berkeley’s goal is to reach “functional zero,” where the number of people entering homelessness is the same as those finding housing, the “city must right-size its system such that the appropriate number of resources are available, per year, to the right people who need them,” according to the report.

Homeless campers by the railroad tracks, June 2018. Photo: Citizen reporter

The report takes a detailed look at the costs of getting 1,000 people off the streets and into homes, which was the mandate handed down by the City Council. But it also delivers numbers about the cost of doing that for 2,000 people, which is reportedly the actual homeless population in Berkeley over any given year.

The cost to address the needs of 1,000 people would be from $16 million to $19.5 million up front. Going forward, it would cost about $12 million to $15 million annually. This would include homeless prevention services, outreach, and housing subsidies at different levels.

To help 2,000 people, it would cost between $17 million and $21 million the first year, according to the report. Then expenses would rise to between $31 million and $43 million annually by 2028.

“What can be designed …  is a homelessness response system that renders homelessness brief, rare, and non-recurring: that is, a system that quickly triages each person based on their need and assigns them to an appropriate level of support to resolve their housing crisis as quickly as possible,” according to the report.

The costs are so high because they include large rental subsidies as well as funds for supportive services, according to City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn. A $43 million a year cost is simply too large for just Berkeley to bear, she said. The state and county must step in even more to help with funds. The government should also build some of its own affordable housing. Moreover, the private companies that have hired thousands of tech workers who have placed pressure on the housing market should step up, she said. They should directly donate to solving the homelessness issue, she said.

Chakko said the city also needs more landlords willing to rent to people with the city’s Shelter Plus grants.

But having a figure — and a concept of the challenges ahead — is critical for Berkeley to figure out what to do, said Hahn. “We can only make decisions when we have good information. It will help us allocate the resources we have more intelligently,” she said.

Berkeley does know how to move people to the streets into housing, said Hahn, and has learned a lot through the Pathways Project. “We know how to do this,” she said.

If no new initiatives are pursued, if spending remains the same and present trends continue, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Berkeley in any given year will rise to 3,062 by 2028, according to the report.

Update: This article was updated after publication to clarify that the new 2,000 number was the result of a new methodology used to count the homeless.

Update, April 6: The headline and first paragraph were changed to make it clearer that the people in Berkeley experiencing homelessness were not transients just coming through.

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...