Council voted Dec. 3 to put nearly $1 million toward a new outdoor homeless encampment. Details are slim but it could be located in northwest Berkeley. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Last week, a Berkeley City Council majority voted to allocate about $11 million in current and future tax revenue to fund new and existing services to address homelessness, including an RV parking program and an outdoor homeless shelter for up to 50 people.

Or was it actually closer to $13 million? You’ll get a different answer depending who you ask. And it also hinges on exactly how much money the tax measure actually brings in by the end of June.

On the night of the vote and in the days that followed, the three council members who questioned the motion to allocate the money have raised concerns about accuracy, transparency and what they saw as a flawed and truncated process surrounding the decision.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín told Berkeleyside on Monday that a council supermajority — six of its members — approved his proposal, which he said will allow the city to fulfill the will of the voters and take bold action toward ending homelessness.

“People in the community want to see investments on the ground right now,” Arreguín said Monday. “Given the urgency of the crisis, we were feeling the need to act that evening. And I think that was the right decision.”

But the dissenting council members — Lori Droste, Rashi Kesarwani and Susan Wengraf — said they needed more time and information before making such a big decision late at night during a curtailed discussion. That was particularly true, they said, about a line-item for an outdoor homeless shelter that included no details. There has never been a staff report about the shelter, nor has a location been identified, but council voted to fund it anyway.

“I know nothing about this proposed encampment,” Droste said from the dais. “That is bad governance to approve that money before it [the proposal] even comes to council.”

Droste and Kesarwani voted against the motion, while Wengraf abstained.

On Dec. 3, the council began its conversation about the Measure P item shortly after 11 p.m. after nearly an hour of public comment on the item. The mayor gave each of his colleagues five minutes to speak in turn. Once those introductory remarks concluded, he abruptly made a successful motion to suspend debate to force a vote immediately as the clock ticked down.

As a result of that vote — supported by the mayor, Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison, Cheryl Davila, Ben Bartlett and Rigel Robinson — council allocated money, among other things, to continue and expand the city’s Pathways shelter program ($3.12 million); pay for mental health ambulance transports ($3.6 million) and the city’s main intake office for homeless services, the Coordinated Entry System (about $1.4 million); continue to develop an RV permit parking program ($200,000), and set up a new outdoor homeless shelter ($922,000) — with details to be determined. The funding is through June 2021.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison’s office put forward the shelter idea in 2018 by revising a Peace & Justice Commission proposal. Since then, it has been approved by the Health, Life Enrichment, Equity & Community policy committee, and could return to the full City Council in January, the mayor said Monday. But, for now, little is known about what it might look like.

The funds are coming from Measure P, which increased the transfer tax revenue the city gets when properties change hands. More than 70% of Berkeley voters approved the measure in November 2018. As a result, the city expects to bring from $6 million to $8 million into the general fund each fiscal year for navigation centers, mental health support, rehousing and other services for the homeless.

After the November 2018 election, the council set up a “panel of experts” to take public input and make recommendations about how to spend that money and ensure that it goes toward homeless services. The panel met several times throughout the year and ultimately suggested six buckets, each tied to a percentage, as a framework for how to prioritize.

Permanent housing subsidies should get 30% of the money, as should shelter and temporary accommodations, the panel said. Street conditions and hygiene should get 14%, as should supportive services such as health care and outreach. Flexible housing subsidies should get 10%, with the final 2% going to infrastructure, described as training for and the evaluation of organizations in the city that get municipal funding.

When it made its allocations, the panel assumed there would be about $4 million available from Measure P annually, its chairwoman Katharine Gale told officials last week.

City staff agreed in theory with many of the panel’s ideas, but advised elected officials to allocate only $900,000 in new Measure P revenue Tuesday, rather than millions of dollars. Staff said officials should send the bulk of the panel’s suggestions to the council’s budget committee for more analysis and discussion.

The city manager said, according to the prepared staff report, that items that would “require a significant ongoing investment” — such as permanent housing subsidies and shelter accommodations — should get “full vetting” from the budget committee to “ensure that long-term commitments made now can be supported over time.”

Staff also said any money available for shelters should be reinvested in the city’s existing shelters, as opposed to launching any new programs, “to keep these priority projects afloat when current funding sources expire.”

If, however, officials were set on launching a new program, staff continued, the best option would be to invest in the RV parking program council already approved earlier this year. Berkeley has been searching — so far unsuccessfully — for a place for as many as 30 RVs to park for a restricted period of time.

Mayor’s compromise

Arreguín told Berkeleyside he spoke with staff and the panel of experts to come up with what he described as a compromise proposal as to how to spend the money. The budget he ultimately put forward, which was approved last week, includes at least $11,066,561 in spending from January 2020 through June 2021, an 18-month period, if Measure P brings in $6 million a year. The vote did not include any funding for permanent housing subsidies this year.

However: If more than $6 million comes in, the mayor said, the city should issue subsidies with the additional money — beginning in July 2020 — with 15% of them set aside for families. If transfer tax earnings don’t reach that threshold in any given fiscal year, there will be no subsidies.

Staff advised caution with this approach, however, noting in the Dec. 3 staff report that “Recent evidence suggests that local increases in targeted homeless family assistance actually increases family homelessness, as homeless families relocate to jurisdictions with more generous funding; the same is not true for individual programs, which measurably reduce individual homelessness.”

In the first six months of 2019, Measure P brought in nearly $3 million, and the second half of the year is expected to be stronger still, the mayor has said previously. Council is set to return to the budget in the spring to review its actual figures and consider new allocations.

Fact-checking the mayor’s proposal

In his remarks during the council discussion last week, Arreguín said he had taken pains to follow the percentage allocations put forward by the panel of experts “as closely as possible,” and submitted a chart as part of his proposal that purported to show the parallels. Unfortunately, that document — which council ultimately approved — was rife with problems.

According to a Berkeleyside analysis, the percentage allocation chart was missing more than $5 million listed in his actual $11 million budget proposal and misstated multiple figures. It included more than $200,000 in non-Measure P money and understated the cost of the outdoor shelter by more than $300,000. It left out more than $800,000 in staffing costs and put the RV parking program in the “street conditions and hygiene” category rather than the one for shelter and temporary accommodations.

As a result of these and other issues, the mayor’s assertions, in both his council proposal and in a follow-up press release his office distributed, that his recommendations closely mirrored the panel’s guidance were wrong several times over. Berkeleyside crunched the numbers over several scenarios, imagining no permanent housing subsidies in one and, in another, $2.5 million in subsidies, which is in line with the mayor’s target according to his proposal. The figures don’t add up to the ones he published in either case.

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He said Monday that his percentage breakdown was only “for illustrative purposes” and was “not the actual allocation plan.”

“I could have clarified that” at the meeting, he told Berkeleyside. “There is a definite difference between the amounts that we had funded and what the panel of experts recommended.”

Arreguín said he left out the items from his chart that Alameda County has previously covered — ambulance transports and the intake services — because the panel did not think Measure P should pay for them and also because he plans to seek other funding sources for them in the future. He did not otherwise explain why his figures and the actual numbers were so different.

The county shortfall

As it stands, a large portion of the recent Measure P allocation — about $5 million — is set to fund two large programs that Alameda County historically covered. There’s the homeless intake program, which was originally called “The Hub” and later became known as “coordinated entry.” And there’s the non-emergency ambulance transport program for those in a mental health crisis, which are also known as “5150s” in reference to the state law governing involuntary confinement for a psychiatric evaluation.

In 2017, the county reported that it would eventually stop sending ambulances to Berkeley for non-emergency mental health pickups due to a contract change. That service ended in June. To prepare for the shift, Berkeley had asked for bids from other contractors that might provide the service, according to a staff report from May. Only one came in, from Falck Northern California Corp, for up to about $11 million over three years.

In 2018, according to the staff report, the county picked up nearly 1,100 people in Berkeley to take them for psychiatric evaluations. Falck charges about $2,000 per pickup, Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan told officials last week.

Earlier this year, officials set aside Measure P money for the program for the time being. And the ordinance language voters approved said Measure P could be used for “mental health support.”

But some have asked whether Measure P is the right source to fund that program. Measure P panel of experts Chair Gale told officials last week that the panel had objected to the ambulance allocation because it “does not result in greater housing or shelter.” In addition, Gale said, “the service is not limited to people who are homeless.”

Brannigan said, according to the best available estimates from Falck, 45% of the people who are transported either identify as homeless or do not have an address that Falck has been able to determine. He said his department is trying to determine whether there’s a more efficient way to handle those calls.

Officials on the dais last week appeared largely in agreement that they hope to find a better solution for that expense in the future.

“We have generally all recognized that the county is failing us and that we really need to insist on their assistance — and that of the state,” said Councilwoman Harrison.

Temporary shelter offerings to expand

The mayor said at last week’s council meeting that his proposal will mean new temporary shelter opportunities for 11 Berkeley youth in Youth Spirit Artworks’ tiny house program in Oakland; 25 more people at the expanded Pathways shelter; 25 people in the RV parking program and up to 50 people at the new outdoor shelter.

The plan for Pathways is to add a trailer and staff to its existing program, which is run by Bay Area Community Services (BACS). The agency told Berkeleyside it would have to hire new staff for the expansion, which could take some time.

“Once BACS received the ‘go ahead’ from the City, we would start recruiting and it would likely take 1-2 months to staff up,” BACS CEO Jamie Almanza said. “We are supportive of the city of Berkeley’s action to continue to address effective ends to homelessness for Berkeley residents.”

As for the RV parking program, which council approved earlier this year, the mayor said city staff has been working to implement it. The idea is to grant permits to a certain number of RVs to park in the city and potentially offer waste pump-out services, he said. The city has not been able to find a suitable parking location to date, however.

The city has also been trying to find an appropriate spot for an outdoor encampment but has come up empty so far. Arreguín told Berkeleyside the city has asked Caltrans whether it might have property in Berkeley or the broader East Bay that might work. The agency has made similar commitments in Oakland and San Jose, he said Monday.

“They have parcels of land that they could dedicate to this type of program,” said Arreguín. “We have broached that question with them.”

Arreguín also said that, although the shelter proposal has not come before council, last week’s vote seems to indicate that “a majority of council does want to move ahead” with it in concept.

Councilwoman Hahn, who made the motion to support the mayor’s item last week, told Berkeleyside on Monday that she was comfortable allocating funds to the proposed shelter because they “are flexible and allow staff to develop a model and seek an operator of the program/facility.” She had stricken another item — which will now be considered later — for a street medicine program the council had not heard about, she added, because it was essentially a contract for a specific program and operator when there had been no public process or discussion about it.

Which of these programs will actually get off the ground anytime soon remains an open question. In addition to the challenges of location and other details, Berkeley recently said goodbye to Peter Radu, who had served since 2017 as the city’s homeless services coordinator, overseeing all of its programs and analyses including its “1,000 person plan.” Radu has been hired by the city of Oakland.

With a key leader missing from its homeless services team, staff will likely be limited, at least for now, in what it can accomplish. His absence may be one reason staff suggested, in its Dec. 3 report, holding off on new programs, allowing for more robust analysis of the other proposals, and focusing on expanding and maintaining the city’s current programs in the near-term.

Permanent housing subsidies

Panel Chair Gale and others said during the meeting that permanent housing subsidies will be key if Berkeley hopes to move the needle on homelessness. That’s why it is ranked No. 1 on the panel’s list of priorities even though it has the same percentage on the list as the temporary shelter category.

“We deliberately placed housing first,” Gale said. “We really wanted to emphasize that housing is the most important thing that ends homelessness.”

The panel’s “starting place was a little rocky” in its discussions this year, she told council, because “we had no specific guidance in the ordinance for either how to make these funding recommendations and no specified amount of funding to work with.” That’s why the group came up with the percentage approach.

About 2,000 people in Berkeley experience homelessness every year, according to the most recent estimates available from the city. An estimated 95% of those are single adults without children, according to the city. Others have said families with children are undercounted in that tally, however.

Berkeley has made inroads on the issue as a result of its recent investments, advocates say, with homelessness in the city growing at a much lower rate than trends seen county-wide. Staff said there has still been a significant increase, however, with the homeless population in the city growing by 14% from 2017 to 2019.

Last week, homeless families and their supporters pleaded with the council to ensure that some portion of the city’s housing subsidies are set aside for them. Arreguín said, under his proposal, those subsidies will be available July 1, 2020, if Measure P revenues are above $6 million. And 15% of the subsidies should be for families, he said.

Staff had warned against using temporary funding to pay for a longterm commitment, but Councilwoman Harrison pushed back against that perspective.

“The idea that we shouldn’t do things today because we may not have the money tomorrow to continue doing those same things does not make sense to me,” she said.

Harrison said there had also been “a misunderstanding” among people about the subsidies and how long they would last.

“It’s subsidies for permanent housing,” she said. “But the subsidies don’t have to be permanent. They can be today, again, something that benefits people. And maybe we don’t have as much next year. We don’t know. We have all these unknowns.”

Staff clarified later in the meeting, however, that permanent housing subsidies “are for the duration of that person’s being in the housing.” There is attrition every year when people move, said Kelly Wallace, interim director of Berkeley’s Health, Housing and Community Service Department, adding, “there isn’t a program that the subsidy actually ends. As long as they are in that housing they are entitled to that subsidy.”

Committing millions to those subsidies each year and making them dependent on revenues that might not always be available could, therefore, put the city in a precarious financial position, staff has said.

Arreguín told Berkeleyside on Monday that he is confident the city can figure it out, particularly if he can find a way to reduce the burden on Measure P revenue caused by ambulance transports and homeless intake services. The city is also likely to get money from the state and other sources, and that money is not currently part of his budget projections. By the time July 1, 2021, comes, he said, officials may be able to change its approach to the subsidies to ensure they are available.

“That’s going to have to come off the top,” he said.

A fractured vote

Measure P itself received widespread voter support and everyone on the City Council has been excited to see what those new revenues might help the city accomplish to address issues surrounding homelessness. But some officials said they weren’t ready to vote on the proposal put forward Dec. 3.

Councilwoman Wengraf said, from the dais, that she was concerned about “funding new programs when we don’t have dedicated funding for the programs that we already have” — including Pathways. She said she wanted to hear from her colleagues about why they felt comfortable moving forward. But the discussion ended, as a result of the mayor’s motion to suspend debate, before anyone could directly respond.

“My biggest issue is that it is poor form to cut off discussion when there are so many important questions,” she told Berkeleyside this week. She also said she found it problematic that “we voted on an encampment that we have never discussed.”

Councilwoman Kesarwani said she also found that troubling, particularly given the possible shelter location and complete lack of detail.

“While this is a concept worthy of exploration,” she told Berkeleyside, “I think constituents of my district may be surprised to learn that this outdoor shelter is proposed to be located in District 1 but has not been vetted at a Council meeting.”

Kesarwani said the process was disappointing, “with a majority of the council voting to suspend debate so that I and others were unable to fully ask questions about an allocation of more than $11 million for homeless services.”

The biggest questions about the vote, however, have come from Councilwoman Droste, who said it was “highly unusual” for the council to allocate money to anything “before ever approving it as a program or policy choice.”

Droste also said she thought there had been misrepresentations about how the Measure P money will be spent. Those include the faulty figures in the mayor’s spreadsheet and press release, including his claim that there will — no caveats — be $2.5 million in permanent housing subsidies — when that number remains to be seen.

In the press release, he also reported just $8.9 million in spending, when the actual projected total with his projected subsidies is closer to $13.6 million.

Droste: We were “procedurally silenced by a supermajority”

Droste said she was uneasy about the vote because the council made decisions about so much money based on proposals that “were riddled with errors and false assertions.” She also pointed out that the mayor’s percentages do not actually line up with those from the panel of experts, despite his representations.

The motion to suspend debate was also problematic, she said: “Wengraf, Kesarwani and I were procedurally silenced by a supermajority of the Council when we wanted to voice questions about the demonstrably inaccurate claims and allocations.”

Droste, who chairs the council’s budget policy committee, has now asked for a meeting of that body Dec. 19 to discuss the allocations and clarify exactly what was approved last week. As of publication time, the city had not determined whether that meeting would happen.

The mayor told Berkeleyside on Monday that the vote had to take place Dec. 3 both because the voters had been waiting too long, since the November 2018 election, and because some of the programs need to get off the ground now.

“We’re entering the Christmas season,” he told his colleagues last week. “We have to act tonight to approve allocations so that we can serve the most vulnerable among us and go home to our families this holiday season and know that we did something to try to move towards our goal of ending homelessness in the city of Berkeley.”

Program allocations for this fiscal year include $307,000 for an outdoor shelter (which is likely to take many months to set up once a location is chosen and a public process unfolds), $100,000 for the RV parking program (location TBD), $75,000 to add staff to a homeless street team downtown and some smaller allocations.

Those who did not support the vote say discussion could have continued to early 2020. Droste noted that “the fiscal year ’20-’21 allocations are not going out the door in the next six months.” That includes the permanent housing subsidies that could be issued if revenues are high enough.

The mayor said he felt it had been important to act quickly so that programs that begin in July would have certainty and continuity around their funding. He said he had drawn that conclusion, in part, from staff.

The perspective seemed at odds, however, with Tuesday’s staff recommendation to allocate just $900,000 in new Measure P money and postpone the rest for further analysis.

“It’s difficult for us to make long-term recommendations without it going to the budget committee first,” Wallace told council last week.

Ultimately, Droste told Berkeleyside on Tuesday, it wasn’t that she minded being on the losing side of the vote. It was the errors and misrepresentations, she said, as well as the abridged discussion, that continue to irk her.

“I urged my colleagues to only fund time- or program-critical homeless issues and wait a few months until the spring so council could receive financial projections and get a holistic picture of all of the city’s homeless funding and services,” she said. “Ultimately the Measure P percentage allocations are meaningless anyway unless we know how non-Measure P existing homeless services fall into various investment areas.”

“This crisis will continue for some time”

Council members who voted in favor of the motion, however, said during last week’s meeting that they can’t come soon enough.

“It’s important that we establish these things now in a strong structure because the need will grow,” said Councilman Bartlett. The city, he added, must “dig the groove for the water to flow into — because it’s coming.”

“It behooves us,” he said, “to set up a mechanism to deal with the most vulnerable. And seniors and young people and families are right there in that mix.”

Harrison said Berkeley has taken huge strides in recent years, moving from a system of services where people “wandered the streets all day” from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. while the shelters were closed to one with much richer offerings — both operating now and planned for the future.

“We have transitional housing. We have Pathways. We have Dorothy Day. We have all these new exciting programs,” she said. “I just want us to not forget where we’ve come from. And I think we also have a new recognition that this is not a temporary crisis. This crisis will continue for some time.”

Harrison continued: “I think there was a lot of wishful thinking at some point that maybe, if we didn’t fund anything, people would just go away. It’s not gonna happen, folks. They’re not going away. It’s called poverty. It’s called displacement.”

Correction: The first quotation in the story about the proposed homeless camp was initially attributed to the wrong council member. It has been fixed.

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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...