An encampment of homeless people at University Avenue and Frontage Road in January 2019.  Photo: Tracey Taylor

The number of homeless people in Berkeley increased 13% in the past two years — an unwelcome jump but much smaller than the increases in Oakland, San Francisco or Alameda County, according to new numbers released by officials on Monday.

The fact that Berkeley’s numbers are significantly lower than other cities indicates that the city’s massive investments in a new navigation center and other projects are working, according to City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn.

“Oakland [is] up 47%. Countywide 43%. SF up 30%. Berkeley [is] only up 13%,” Hahn wrote in a text. “That means we are growing at less than half the rate of SF and about ¼ the rate of Oakland. That’s not random. I have a lot of confidence in our strategies.”

In 2019, there were 1,108 people without housing in Berkeley, compared to 972 in 2017, according to a report the non-profit EveryOneHome presented to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. 813 of those were unhoused and 295 were sheltered.

That number, reached after workers did surveys on the streets in January, doesn’t reflect all the homeless people who come in and out of Berkeley over the course of a year, according to Paul Buddenhagen, deputy city manager. In fact, a comprehensive report of Berkeley’s unhoused population given to the City Council in April, called the 1,000 Person Plan to Address Homelessness, suggests that there may be about 2,000 homeless people who may spend some portion of time in Berkeley over 365 days rather than only one day.

The new numbers were released on the same day that Mayor Jesse Arreguín presented his state of the city report. He spent a considerable amount of time discussing the various steps Berkeley has taken since his election to reduce the number of homeless people in the city. Berkeley currently spends about $20 million on providing homeless services, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko. About $6.5 million comes from its general fund, about $9.5 million comes from regional, state and federal funds and $3.9 million came in FY19 from one-time funds from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program.

Arreguín highlighted the following developments:

  • Berkeley opened its first low-barrier navigation center in June 2018. About 170 people have used the STAIR center since then, said Arreguín. 102 of those have been housed. 93% of those have retained their housing, he said.
  • The current City Council has increased the number of shelter beds to an all-time high, according to Arreguín. Berkeley has about 305 shelter beds.
  • Berkeley has increased funding for anti-displacement programs to $900,000. About $550,000 of that is allotted for legal advice to prevent displacement and $250,000 is for one-time cash grants for people facing eviction. There is also $100,000 available to provide rehousing assistance for people who are homeless.
  • Recent bonds and measures adopted by Berkeley voters (MeasureU1, Measures O and P) will make more funds available to build affordable housing, fund small sites programs, support the STAIR center, and fully fund Berkeley Way, 142 units of affordable and supportive housing, a homeless shelter and wrap-around social services.

Hahn described Berkeley’s approach as a “three-legged stool.” The city is not only providing shelter beds and services but is focusing on preventing people from leaving their homes and rehousing and “securing more deeply affordable housing,” she texted.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín delivered his state of the city address at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage on Monday, July 22, 2019. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“If you miss one or cut it short you can’t be successful,” she said.

Despite all the emphasis on getting the unhoused into housing, 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 than it did in 2014.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Alameda County is 8,022, which is a 43% increase over 2017, according to EveryOneHome. The number of people in Oakland without housing rose 47% between 2017 and 2019,” one of the biggest two-year increases of any California city,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In the count taken in January using federal guidelines, Oakland had 861 sheltered people and 3,210 unsheltered people, bringing the estimated number of homeless people to 4,071, the Chronicle reported. In 2017, Oakland had 859 sheltered people and 1,902 unsheltered residents, a total of 2,761.

“Oakland’s homelessness rate is now 940 per 100,000 population, slightly higher than San Francisco, at 906, and Berkeley, at 898,” according to the Chronicle.

Still, the fact that Berkeley’s unhoused population grew so much more slowly than elsewhere was seen as good news by the city.

“The amount of money Berkeley has put in has already made a difference and I think it will continue to make a difference, one person at a time,” said Buddenhagen. “That said, it is not sufficient to solve homelessness.”

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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...