Officials say they are using a homeless camp in Modesto as a model for some of what they hope to do with a new pilot program in Berkeley. Photo: Andy Alfaro/Modesto Bee (courtesy) Credit: Modesto Bee

A Berkeley City Council majority voted yes Tuesday night to the idea of a sanctioned homeless camp pilot program, location to be determined, and have asked city staff to figure out the specifics and report back.

The camp won’t be set up until staff returns to council with suggestions for an appropriate location, a detailed plan and any needed municipal code changes, an updated budget and a “good neighbor” policy for how the camp will work and run. As it has been proposed — by Councilwoman Kate Harrison’s office and co-sponsors Cheryl Davila, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Rigel Robinson — the program would have a staff of two site managers and two housing coordinators, but there will be no money for housing available for campers.

“What we’re trying to do is move from the hellish to the better,” Harrison said Tuesday night. Council members Rashi Kesarwani and Lori Droste said they still had questions and abstained from the vote while the rest voted in favor. Council had previously allocated $922,000 for the program over 18 months.

The original proposal suggested one location for the camp, below the University Avenue overpass at Second Street, but said staff should consider other places too. Tuesday night, Harrison said other options might be the public right-of-way on Second Street north of Cedar Street, as well as the marina. Some questions came up last week about whether the city actually owned the land at University and Second, but staff confirmed Tuesday that it does.

As the city considers where to set up the new camp, which will have room for 50 people in 25 tents and a suggested stay of 180 days, the broader context of a recent executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom looms large. The order requires the creation of an inventory of “excess state land” by the end of January that local jurisdictions could use “on a short-term emergency basis to provide shelter for individuals who are homeless” as long as it won’t delay the construction of affordable housing.

Harrison’s proposal asks the city manager to consider amenities in the new “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.

An estimated 20-30 people addressed council on the subject Tuesday night. Most of them were in favor of the proposal, though a few said they did not support it or felt it needed more work.

Architect Yes Duffy, who described himself as a homeowner who lives just blocks from the proposed University Avenue location, said he would welcome the shelter in his neighborhood.

“I grew up in Berkeley learning a lot about homelessness and learning a lot about activism,” he told officials, adding that many of the people he grew up with are experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area now.

Barbara Brust of advocacy group Consider the Homeless said six months would not be enough time to stay.

“You cannot pick people up out of a doorway and expect them to change in 180 days,” she said. Of the proposal, Brust said: “There’s enough holes in this thing to drive a tractor though.”

Harrison said six months is just a suggested period that would not be strictly enforced. The city must act now, she said, because there is space available in Berkeley for sanctioned camps. She said the proposal would clean up the streets for everyone and that it will save city money and resources related to enforcement. But she also said that no one who is unhoused in Berkeley would be required to move.

Harrison said she hopes, however, that the creation of the camp will encourage people to leave Caltrans land near I-80 at University Avenue and Gilman Street where there is a rat infestation and conditions are intense. Arreguín said the city anticipates that Caltrans and the CHP will force campers to move at some point, and the city needs to be ready with an alternative. Kesarwani said an estimated 100 people are currently living near the freeway.

Officials say they are using a homeless camp in Modesto as a model for some of what they hope to do in Berkeley. Photo: Andy Alfaro/Modesto Bee (courtesy) Credit: Modesto Bee

Although Harrison’s original proposal mentioned the possibility of multiple sanctioned camps, she said Tuesday night that her intention is to have just one location to begin with. She and her co-sponsors heralded a camp that was set up in Modesto last year that was lauded as a success. The Modesto camp is now closing as the city moves some of its residents into a new homeless shelter.

Berkeley has no such plans, however. City staff has previously said Berkeley should focus its resources on getting people into housing through a centralized intake program that is service-rich and prioritizes those who are most in need.

“Without an intervention that focuses on creating permanent affordability in the housing market, all available evidence suggests that anything Berkeley does to address homelessness will not reduce it so long as present trends continue,” according to the city’s “1000 Person Plan to Address Homelessness,” which was published last year. “To end homelessness … the city will need up-front investments in targeted homelessness prevention, light-touch housing problem-solving, rapid rehousing, and permanent subsidies.”

Droste asked where the 24-hour staff will stay at the camp because the plan has no area identified for them, and was also not sure how the city would save money on enforcement if no one is actually required to move to the sanctioned location. Her biggest worry, however, is that there is no money for housing tied to the program, she said.

Harrison and others said the goal is to offer respite to people in a less chaotic environment than what they are living in now.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she isn’t sure how staff will manage the workload, as the city has no homeless coordinator right now to oversee all the city’s programs and requests. The leadership of the department that oversees that work is also expected to change.

“We’re in transition, so introducing a new program at this point in time from that perspective is going to be a real challenge on our staff,” she said.

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila asked City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley whether there has been outreach to neighbors around University and Second about the possibility of a sanctioned camp. Williams-Ridley said the city has “had some conversations about RVs” at the location, but not about a tent camp. Davila said she saw the two ideas as essentially the same, from an outreach perspective.

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said she didn’t understand why there was “so much angst” over the proposal and pointed to what she described as “prosecutorial” questions by several of her colleagues. She said the item simply asks staff to figure out how to do “something like this.”

“It’s such a wide-open invitation to our staff” to develop the program, Hahn said, and bring it back to council for a final vote. “I guess I’m just surprised with the level of concern.”

There was no discussion Tuesday night as to when the item might return for its next discussion.

Correction: As approved by council, the new camp would be set up for 50 people in 25 tents, not 50. The story has been fixed.

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...