Old City Hall is open Monday night to those experiencing homelessness. Photo: by Melati Citrawireja

Acting quickly Monday morning in response to air quality concerns due to smoke from fires in the region, the city of Berkeley decided to open up Old City Hall as an overnight respite shelter for those experiencing homelessness.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said outreach workers went out Monday to let unhoused individuals know about the option to stay overnight at the Maudelle Shirek Building at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (just north of Allston Way). Doors opened at 6 p.m.

In the end, air quality in Berkeley improved steadily throughout the day, according to a Bay Area Air Quality Management District sensor in Aquatic Park. But the situation looked more serious in the morning. From 6-10 a.m., air quality was listed as unhealthy for everyone, then briefly became unhealthy only for sensitive groups.

From 11 a.m. onward, however, Berkeley’s air quality was listed as “moderate,” meaning that only “unusually sensitive people should consider limiting prolonged outdoor exertion.”

Update: Berkeley air quality, as measured at Aquatic Park, has improved to “moderate.” The city says this is pretty reliable info for the rest of town and that Berkeley is lucky to have an air monitoring station within city limits. Source: https://t.co/FLXc5mYZNV #Berkeley pic.twitter.com/pxcrDHpAHT— Berkeleyside (@berkeleyside) October 28, 2019

Chakko said, in general, the West Berkeley sensor is considered an accurate gauge for the rest of town, too. He said Berkeley is lucky because a number of cities have no sensors within their city limits.

Chakko said the city would decide Tuesday as to whether the respite shelter would open again this week. On Monday, he said, outreach had mixed results, with more people interested in the respirator masks the city handed out than in its shelter plans.

Masks are not for everybody, he continued. The best approach, when the air quality index is above 150, is to stay inside.

“We did this as an extra precaution,” he said. “This shelter was created specifically to address issues created by smoke.”

A Spare the Air alert is in effect in Berkeley on Tuesday.

During the winter, the city opens a shelter at Old City Hall on rainy or cold nights, but it has been closed for the season.

The Old City Hall shelter can support 25-35 people nightly, the city has said previously. It was unknown as of publication time whether that was an accurate estimate for what the city would be able to handle Monday night.

Chakko also told Berkeleyside that the city confers closely with county health departments around the region when it assesses air quality and decides what steps to take in the interest of public health.

“It’s the city along with these counties all agreeing on a set of messaging,” he said. With the ongoing fires in the region, he added, “there’s a lot of misinformation about smoke going on.”

When air quality is poor, keep indoor air clean. Set air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate so you don’t bring outside air in. Don’t use candles, stoves, hairspray, cigarettes, or vacuums: https://t.co/XwKEkQUB8A pic.twitter.com/3z6tFXMdNd— City of Berkeley (@CityofBerkeley) October 28, 2019

Since Berkeley is the only non-county jurisdiction that has its own health officer, he added, “it’s part of an extra level of focus we’re able to give to this issue.”

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...