Four council members hope to set up a temporary homeless camp below the University Avenue overpass at Second Street. Image: City of Berkeley

Update, 8 p.m. Mayor Jesse Arreguín told Berkeleyside after publication, regarding the property at University and Second, that “there are questions about whether the property can be used for that purpose. The Governor’s recent Executive Order on homelessness may change [the] dynamics.” Arreguín said he supports the item in concept but, if approved, it would be up to staff “to work on the specifics including a location. The location may be on Second Street and University or may be somewhere else,” he said.

Update, 4:25 p.m. A question arose after publication about whether the University Avenue property actually belongs to the city, as it had been described by Harrison and her co-authors. Berkeleyside asked the city spokesman for comment. Separately, Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani said she had learned it is actually Caltrans property that is leased by the city. She shared the following statement: “Caltrans has informed me and other city officials, including Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen … that it is a violation of Caltrans policy to lease their property for homeless services when the location is located directly under an overpass. This Caltrans policy would prevent the use of the location contemplated in the outdoor emergency shelter item authored by Councilmember Harrison.”

Original story: Four city officials have put forward a proposal to develop sanctioned homeless encampments around the city, suggesting one suitable location for up to 120 tents could be below the University Avenue overpass at Second Street in West Berkeley.

The Berkeley City Council is set to vote on the proposal Tuesday and the city has asked the public to weigh in online before the meeting. Councilwoman Kate Harrison spearheaded the plan, and three of her colleagues — Cheryl Davila, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Rigel Robinson — have signed on in support.

The tent camp could be located at a city-owned lot at 611-639 University, they write. According to the agenda item, the lot “is mostly empty, with some room used to store old pipes, shipping containers, and other disused pieces of construction equipment.” No other locations for the camp are proposed in the report.

“The location fits the needs of our unhoused community, and is currently housing only old pipes,” according to the report. “It is a smart location for a City-managed emergency shelter.”

The city’s Berkeley Considers website has asked the public to review the item, which has a $615,000 price tag listed in Tuesday’s agenda item. In November, a council majority preemptively approved an allocation of $922,000 for the program through June 2021. Council members Lori Droste, Rashi Kesarwani and Susan Wengraf voted no or abstained on the item because the program details had not yet come to the full council.

The proposal asks the city manager to consider amenities in the “outdoor shelter” such as “climate-controlled, wind-resistant durable tents with wooden pallets for support”; portable toilets and handwashing stations; shower and sanitation services; garbage pickup and needle disposal; and an agency to manage the program, which would be open 24 hours a day.

The participation criteria are vague, and ask the city manager to use standards “that mirror other shelter selection criteria and are less restrictive than HUD protocols.”

Councilwoman Kate Harrison’s office originally put forward the encampment idea in 2018 by significantly revising an earlier Peace & Justice Commission proposal. It was later approved by council’s Health, Life Enrichment, Equity & Community policy committee,

According to Tuesday night’s item, Berkeley had about 1,100 people experiencing homelessness during the last official count, including 813 who were unsheltered, meaning they sleep in a tent, a street, a sidewalk or a park.

“Roughly 500 people in Berkeley are sleeping in tents or without shelter altogether, whether officially sanctioned or not,” according to the item. “Under current policy, many of these encampments do not have any trash, sanitary services, good neighbor policy, or engagement with services, creating unsanitary and unsafe circumstances for both the residents of the encampments and surrounding neighbors.”

The report cites concerns about health impacts these individuals are experiencing due to exposure to the elements, as well as “a potentially dangerous situation with autumn smoke and winter rains approaching.”

The authors of the item propose a 180-day “suggested length of stay” in the program and indicate the possibility of more than one camp in Berkeley, although only one location is listed in the report.

“The intention of this item is to create a limited number of sanctioned encampments operated in an organized fashion,” the authors write. “The goal is that no individual will remain for an extended period of time as placement in an indoor navigation center or permanent housing are more appropriate mid- and long-term options.”

The authors said the cost of setting up the new program would be offset by reductions in expenses associated with enforcement in the existing unsanctioned camps around the city: “The benefit of an emergency outdoor shelter is the ability to choose the most appropriate location, and provide appropriate services, rather than current disorder.”

The parcel at 611-639 University Avenue is described as one “possible location” that would be a good fit because it’s surrounded by a manufacturing district rather than residential or commercial neighborhoods. There’s a water main nearby and it’s three blocks from the city’s Pathways shelter, they write.

“Moreover, is not visible from I-80,” according to the report. “The lot is adjacent to areas where unhoused people are currently living, thus transferring to this location would permit this community to stay together.”

As for other possible areas this could happen, the authors write: “Other locations should be considered as appropriate. Ideal locations would be owned and/or managed by the City of Berkeley in non-residential zones and be accessible by public transit.”

City staff or a non-profit provider would run the program, according to the report, and could offer services such as 24-hour security, governance, volunteer and donation coordination, supportive services, and rehabilitation to help escape homelessness.

Trash pickup will be important, according to the proposal, to avoid issues such as the “rodent infestation” at the large encampment at University Avenue and Frontage Road.

As of publication time, about 220 people had filled out the city’s survey about the proposal on Berkeley Considers, with about 53% in favor of the plan and 43% opposed. The survey is open until Monday.

The Berkeley City Council meets Tuesday at 1231 Addison St. at 6 p.m. for its regular meeting. See the full agenda.

Note: Berkeleyside adjusted the headline and first sentence of the story after publication to better show that multiple locations for sanctioned encampments are under consideration.

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...