Starting this fall, an unhoused person in Berkeley could potentially spend every day and night in one downtown Berkeley basement without missing a meal, a shower or a full night’s sleep.
The year-round shelter and new full-day drop-in center in the Veterans Building on Center Street are among several recent tweaks to Berkeley’s complex array of homeless services. The City Council has also awarded its largest single homelessness contract — around $1.2 million a year to run Berkeley’s centralized intake system — to a new operator.
And more changes could be on the horizon as Berkeley decides what to do with more money coming in for homelessness from local taxes and the state.
The recent decisions, solidified through the approval of the new city budget and other votes at the June 25 council meeting, expand the reach of one operator, Dorothy Day House, throughout downtown Berkeley.
Since last fall, the nonprofit has run a 52-bed nightly shelter in the Veterans Building basement, including dinner and breakfast. The program began as an extension of Dorothy Day’s emergency winter shelter, but the new contract, starting with nearly $566,000 in state funds for fiscal year 2020, and $266,000 for the next, makes it an official year-round enterprise. The city’s new budget also gives Dorothy Day $30,000 a year to keep running its emergency winter shelter just around the corner, at Old City Hall. That shelter opens on cold or wet nights.
New this fall is a full-day drop-in center also at the Veterans Building, where Dorothy Day will provide two meals — another breakfast after the shelter’s morning meal, and lunch — as well as showers, laundry, and access to a number of services that will be brought in.
Dorothy Day got about $177,000 from the city to take over the existing daytime programming from Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), which currently runs a more abbreviated morning drop-in center at the site. BOSS also applied for the new contract, but Dorothy Day won it, cementing the organization’s authority over the services in the neighborhood.
After staying at Old City Hall during a rainy night, one could now “walk right across street and have breakfast” in the Veterans Building, said David Stegman, director of Dorothy Day.
“It’s right in the center of Berkeley,” he said. “We have this philosophy that we’ll never close, which is unique. Agencies close on holidays, libraries close. That’s the most vulnerable time for people on the streets.”
Despite the all-hours operation, the nighttime shelter will serve a different population than the daytime drop-in program.
The overnight visitors are part of a fixed group, and are all drawn from a list compiled by the city and community agencies of Berkeley’s top 100 chronically homeless residents, Stegman said. They keep their nightly spots in the shelter until they get housed or otherwise choose to leave.
“We have very few incidents, because it’s a stable population,” Stegman said. “We know who we have.”
During the day, however, anyone can come to the drop-in program, now called the Berkeley Community Resource Center. Dorothy Day has hired Robbi Montoya, from Berkeley Food & Housing Project, to oversee that program.
At the June 25 City Council meeting, the nighttime shelter’s manager, Bob Whalen, told officials the program “has evolved into a real community.”
“The integration of the drop-in center with expanded hours is really going to complement what we do,” Whalen said.
In response, some council members gushed about Dorothy Day’s track record.
“Every step of the way [Dorothy Day] has been a valuable partner, and has just been completely dedicated to helping serve our unhoused population,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín.
However, the city has also previously said new investments in ending homelessness should be geared toward getting people permanently housed. The council’s decision to open a new elaborate navigation center on Second and Cedar streets last year was predicated on the services attached to the shelter guiding residents to permanent housing, for example. Shortly after their election, Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn called for a “1,000 person plan” to house all the city’s homeless residents. The plan was recently completed by city staff, who documented numerous barriers to getting homeless people into permanent housing, including funding challenges, exorbitant rents, difficulty serving residents with addictions and some disabilities, and people returning to the streets when their housing vouchers run out.
Dorothy Day staff members told Berkeleyside they know of just four people at the Veterans Building shelter who they are sure have gotten housed since it opened in October. Residents are allowed to stay there indefinitely, as opposed to the up to six-month timeframe at the Pathways Center, where people are directed toward housing.
At a council meeting in April, Peter Radu, Berkeley’s homeless services coordinator, said the city must fund alternative programs in the meantime while working to house people.
“While we recognize that housing and programs oriented to housing are the only true solutions to homelessness, our large and unsheltered homeless population has many immediate needs that need to be addressed,” he said.
Stegman said the new contract for the day program will also allow Dorothy Day to partner with housing services, as well as mental health providers, the library and legal services, making the Veterans Building “a one-stop place to deal with a lot of different issues.”
On a recent day around noon, people filtered out of the Veterans Building, leaving BOSS’s current morning drop-in center. One man, who only gave the name John, said he’d take advantage of the longer program soon to be offered by Dorothy Day. Right now there are plenty of regulars who stay at the center from the moment it opens until it closes for the afternoon, he said.
“A lot of people want to come in bright and early,” said John. “They’ll wait outside to sign up for showers. There’s a few outlets people use to charge phones too.”
He said he was familiar with Dorothy Day through its meal program at Christ Church on Cedar Street. The nonprofit already cooks the food for that program in the Veterans Building kitchen. Now staff will no longer have to drive it over to North Berkeley when that program ends and the meals are moved to the downtown site.
For drop-in center visitors like John, that means breakfast will be more accessible.
“I’ve only been once,” he said of the Cedar Street program. “That was too far from where I stay.”
The Hub changes hands
With the passage of the city’s budget, Berkeley’s “coordinated entry system” has changed providers.
Formerly called the Hub, the North County Housing Resource Center assesses unhoused individuals and directs them to social services, shelter or housing. Since it launched in January 2016, the Hub has been run by Berkeley Food & Housing Project.
Although Berkeley Food & Housing reapplied for the contract, the city gave it to Bay Area Community Services (BACS), the organization that runs the Pathways Center.
“With the work we’re doing in Berkeley, it made sense to really dive in,” said Daniel Cooperman, program director at BACS.
Reviewing the two applications, the Berkeley Homeless Commission mentioned the outgoing agency’s mixed reputation.
“The HUB, as operated by Berkeley Food and Housing, has been the subject of multiple complaints including poor coordination and homeless outreach without follow-up. However, more recently, they have demonstrated improvement with weekly outreach in the evenings to shelters as well as weekly visits to drop-in centers,” the commission said in a spring report.
BACS has also been the subject of a fair share of complaints, but is a lesser-known quantity, commissioners wrote.
Ultimately the city manager told the council that BACS submitted a stronger proposal, including a lower operating cost that could permit longer hours. Additionally, more of BACS’ funding comes from MediCal, “meaning BACS is leveraging more State healthcare resources in support of the community’s most disabled, vulnerable individuals,” staff wrote in a report.
Cooperman said BACS is still figuring out staffing and making some “fine tweaks” to the existing operation, though “nothing major.”
“Berkeley Food & Housing did a great job, so we definitely want to honor all the work and commitment they put in,” he said.
The intake site has already moved from the old Hub location on Fairview Street to 2809 Telegraph Ave. Although BACS is taking on a massive operation, coordinating with all of Berkeley’s other homelessness services, Cooperman said it won’t be a big lift for an organization already working extensively in Oakland.
“We have experience and a record of running similar programs and a similar-size budget,” he said. “This is not something brand new to BACS.”
More money for homeless services
Organizations like Dorothy Day are already benefiting from brand new homeless funding sources.
To finance the Veterans Building shelter over the next two years, the City Council approved $832,000 in California Homeless Emergency Aid Program funds, new state money that the city must use to address the homelessness crisis by 2021. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new budget includes more funds for homelessness and housing too.
Many programs are also eagerly awaiting money to pour in from Measure P, Berkeley’s new transfer tax supporting homeless services, although recipients have yet to be selected.
“Money is unlike it’s ever been before,” said Stegman. “Now it’s like, how do you transfer all that money into services, and who does it?”