man in orange uniform pushes a trashcan down a street
Vernon Brown is one of the “ambassadors” who could move into the Berkeley YMCA through a new partnership. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Vernon Brown is one of the “ambassadors” who could move into the Berkeley YMCA through a new partnership. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent Friday morning, Vernon Brown deftly pushed a trash can down Telegraph Avenue with one hand, while using a grabber to pluck candy wrappers and half-eaten snacks off the sidewalk with the other.

Along the way, he paused to greet street vendors and people who sleep on the avenue.

“Hey there, are you all right?”

Brown is an “ambassador” with the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID), part of an orange-clad crew hired by the merchants’ association to clean and oversee the commercial district. During his six months on the job, Brown has developed what he describes as “working friendships” with the many unhoused people who live and hang out in the neighborhood.

Starting a shift that Friday, Brown stopped for a moment to check on the man who sleeps right outside the TBID office door on Durant Avenue. He’s blind, and Brown sometimes escorts him to get coffee or cleans up after him when he’s gone to the bathroom on the sidewalk overnight. Later in the morning he spotted police on Telegraph and Bancroft Way, detaining another man Brown’s gotten to know, who, he says, has mental health challenges. That man took weeks to warm up to Brown, but now they say hello to each other.

But Brown’s new friends might not realize that the ambassador’s own living situation is precarious too.

After his family lost property in the 2017 Ponderosa Fire in Butte County, Brown came down to the Bay Area for work. He makes just over minimum wage and sends some of it back to his brother, who’s still living in a trailer on the charred land. Brown feels lucky to have found a temporary place to stay in Oakland, but that’s ending in about a month.

However, if all goes as planned, Brown will soon move into a new home — a small, single room at the Berkeley YMCA.

Man opens an apartment door
Lance Gorée, YMCA hotel director, opens up one of the rooms that could soon house an ambassador. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Through a new partnership between the YMCA, the TBID and Block by Block, the Kentucky-based company the TBID contracts with to employ ambassadors, some ambassadors could rent rooms in the YMCA hotel in exchange for a portion of their paychecks. The organizations hope the first two tenants will be able to move in by January.

“I’m excited about it. Housing as a job benefit should be looked at across the board,” said Lance Gorée, executive director of hotel and facilities at the Berkeley YMCA.

For Gorée, the partnership is the manifestation of an idea that first occurred to him years ago. At the time, he was operations manager for the Downtown Berkeley Association, and he oversaw the ambassador program in that district.

As a “second chance” employer, Gorée would hire many ambassadors who’d struggled in the past with addiction or incarceration. He saw first hand the importance of secure housing in keeping them on track.

“Turnover was an issue for us,” he said. “There was a lot of unstable housing and long commutes. People were leaving me then coming back, or leaving and relapsing. We wanted to deter turnover, for business reasons and for personal reasons.”

Gorée wanted to approach housing providers about setting aside some units for his employees. When that didn’t pan out, he put the idea in his pocket and pulled it back out when he got a new job at the YMCA. Now, he’s in charge of the 78-unit hotel on Milvia Street and Allston Way, the only one of its kind left at a California YMCA. Gym-goers jogging on treadmills or swimming laps often have no idea there are dozens of people living right above them.

Spread out between two floors, the  modest bedrooms share one central kitchen, dining area and computer lab, as well as several bathrooms, in a hostel- or SRO-style set-up. Some rooms are rented out nightly to travelers, and others have long-term tenants. According to Gorée, there’s one man who’s been living in his YMCA room since 1995.

Some of the rooms have been used by a foreign-exchange language program. With enrollment declining in that program, Gorée saw an opportunity and reached out to the TBID and Block by Block.

The three entities are still working out the logistics. But when the program launches, the TBID will sign the leases with the Y and send in the monthly rents, with Block by Block deducting the money from the ambassadors’ paychecks. The TBID’s merchant fees fund the contract with Block by Block.

“We will share some of the risk involved, as well as Block by Block,” said Stuart Baker, executive director of the TBID. “Let’s say an ambassador left suddenly, and wasn’t able to pay. You can’t ask someone in that price category to pay first and last months’ rent.” 

Each YMCA room and ambassador situation is a bit different, so there probably won’t be a uniform rent price, said Gorée, but it will typically work out to be around $30 per night, or $900 a month, including utilities. Standard single hotel rooms normally go for $57.

“We’re taking a hit,” but the cost is still more than the $600 some longtime tenants are paying, Gorée said.

a young man cooks in a kitchen
The 78 rooms at the Berkeley YMCA hotel share a central kitchen. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The groups also sat down with Berkeley Rent Board staff, who determined the units were subject to rent control. If an ambassador leaves their job, they’re entitled to continue living in the room, but will be responsible for paying rent on their own.

Stuart Baker, the executive director of the TBID, said accepting Gorée’s proposal was a “no-brainer.”

“I hear anecdotally from ambassadors all the time how much they’re paying for rent and what they’re getting for their rent and how far they have to commute,” he said.

Brown said he’s just looking for the basics: “a place to lay my head down, then get up and go to work.” The YMCA fits the bill.

“I’ve already grown fond of Berkeley,” Brown said. “I like it here. There’s a variety of people, and lots of old hippie types. I’m kind of used to that where I’m from.”

His colleague Alejandro Avina said he’s eyeing a room in the hotel too.

Avina lives with his family in Redwood City, and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to take Caltrain and BART to Berkeley for his 7 a.m. ambassador shift. Nevertheless, he doesn’t want to quit.

“I’m staying in this job as long as I can,” he said during a shift last week. “I really like being out in the community and giving back, and I enjoy working outside.”

A custodian in orange speaks with a man on a sidewalk
Vernon Brown chats with a man on Telegraph about the impact of an upcoming half marathon on the avenue. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“That’s also the fun of the job — you’re out there getting exercise,” said Jeff Gilbert, operations manager for the Telegraph program, who works out on the street alongside the ambassadors. Seven to 10 miles of walking a day, Brown added.

The ambassadors said merchants often don’t realize that they’ve been hard at work hosing, sweeping, spraying and tossing for three hours by the time they arrive to open their shops. The amount of trash that collects overnight “is amazing,” said Gilbert, and it includes cardboard that merchants themselves toss out on the sidewalk, and takeout containers from students.

“Clamshells, boba cups, pizza boxes,” rattled off Brown.

Not everyone’s embraced the ambassador program. Some view the neon-clad cleaners as agents of private business owners or the police, hired to hassle homeless people.

Other merchants get mad at them for not enforcing the law, even though that’s not in their job descriptions, said Brown.

The ambassador program is also one that Gorée has deep personal connections with – but not the only job program or industry with employees who struggle to afford housing in Berkeley.

“I did go to what I knew,” Gorée acknowledged. “Would we offer this to other programs? I don’t know.” But he said he’d encourage any company to offer guaranteed housing as a job benefit.

It’s not an idea unique to the YMCA. Throughout the city and region, the public and private sectors are looking at housing as a recruitment and retention tactic as rents climb. Both the Berkeley Repertory Theater and Berkeley Unified have looked into developing housing for artists and teachers, respectively.

Baker noted that Berkeley’s city manager received an $800,000 home loan when she was hired, so she could move closer to work.

“Someone invested in the community who’s living here would be an asset to all of us,” he said. “This is similar in spirit but is helping the entirely different dynamic of someone who’s close to being unhoused.”

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,...