close up on an old church building
YEAH!, a youth homeless shelter, has been located in the Lutheran Church of the Cross, on University Avenue between Grant Street and McGee Avenue, since 2003. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley’s only youth homeless shelter will likely have to leave the city early this year.

YEAH!, pronounced “yay,” has been located inside the Lutheran Church of the Cross on University Avenue since 2003. By day, the building houses church services and 12-step programs. By night, 35 young people, ages 18 to 24, come inside for respite from the streets and a place to sleep.

The church says the shared use of the space has become less tenable, especially since YEAH! became a year-round shelter in 2017. Covenant House, the nonprofit that’s run YEAH! for a few years, says it’s feeling squeezed out after the church has decreased its space and raised its rent.

Earlier this year it seemed like Covenant could move the shelter to a South Berkeley site on King Street, but the organization backed away after neighbors there complained and threatened legal action.

The Lutheran Church of the Cross did not renew YEAH!’s full year-long lease last year, and has now put the shelter on a month-to-month contract.

“We haven’t offered them a deadline, so we’re all kind of in a holding pattern,” said Rev. Cary Bass-Deschenes, the church’s pastor. “We’re not going to put these young people out on the streets by any means. But our building is multi-use and YEAH! needs a dedicated space.”

The shelter has actually been searching for a new location since long before its last lease ran out. Covenant CEO Bill Bedrossian said he’s come up empty after scouring Berkeley for an affordable spot suitable for — and zoned to allow — numerous young people living together in one place. Covenant has even offered to buy the church building.

“I’m hopeful for a miracle,” Bedrossian said. “From a practical standpoint, I’m not optimistic after two-plus years landscaping the real estate market.”

A couple of weeks ago, the nonprofit, which has headquarters in Oakland and Los Angeles, figured out a temporary solution.

Last month Governor Gavin Newsom visited Oakland to give the city 15 trailers equipped to house 70 homeless people. The batch is part of 100 former FEMA trailers he’s vowed to distribute around the state.

Newsom, standing alongside the mayors of Oakland and Berkeley, announced Covenant would get to use six of the trailers. A private foundation, Taube Philanthropies, donated $1.5 million to support the trailer project. Bedrossian said YEAH!’s participants will most likely be relocated there in a couple months or so, unless a permanent site becomes available before then.

But YEAH! said a move to Oakland, however temporary they hope it will be, is not ideal.

“These are kids who identify with Berkeley. This is where their connections are,” said Natalie Leimkuhler, one of the original founders of YEAH!.

The shelter has also built up a roster of Berkeley-based volunteers who feel connected to the young adults.

“There’s a beautiful dynamic that every meal served is served by someone who lives in the community,” Bedrossian said. “It’s an expression of love. The young people see that, hey, this isn’t just paid staff that care about me.”

He also believes many of the youth simply won’t leave Berkeley even if the shelter does. They’d rather end up on the streets here than housed in a city where they face threats to their safety.

“There’s a community of people, especially our young men, who are intentionally outside of Oakland because it’s safer for them,” Bedrossian said. “There are some who just can’t be there, even in a temporary spot.”

Covenant did think it had zeroed in on a Berkeley site for YEAH! last year. The organization was in talks to take over the Fred Finch Youth Center transitional housing facility on King and 62nd streets. While the area is not zoned to allow a shelter, the city said its declaration of a homeless crisis could override those rules.

However, neighbors turned out in force at public meetings to try to halt the move. They complained that there had been no outreach to people living around the proposed site. The residents said they feared for the shelter users’ safety, telling officials that the violent environment in the neighborhood would not be appropriate for young people trying to get their lives together. People connected with YEAH! said that concern rang false to them, as a staffed facility there would be safer for the youth than the streets they might end up on if the shelter had to close.

“To be perfectly frank, I was really discouraged by the level of animosity we experienced,” Bedrossian said. He said neighbors later threatened to sue the city over the use of that site, which for him “was the final straw.”

Neighbors near King and 62nd streets told the City Council in 2019 that proposal to move YEAH! to the area was a bad idea. Photo: Emilie Raguso

He and Leimkuhler also said the youth have lately had experiences with church congregants that made the young people feel unwelcome at 1744 University Ave. as well.

The pastor said the church’s interactions with the young people it hosts overnight have run the gamut. A couple of the shelter-goers attend church services, he said.

“By far, most of the youth are polite,” said Bass-Deschenes. “From time to time, there were altercations with church members and even myself. YEAH!’s been very good when we let them know these things are happening.” Last year there were allegations of sexual battery at the shelter, but charges were never filed in that case.

Leimkuhler said the respective users of the shelter and the church are not the most natural cohabitants.

“A lot of these kids are suffering from trauma, and it’s a little tough to integrate with the elderly church population,” she said.

For Leimkuhler, the uncertain future of the shelter she and a few others started from scratch is hard to see.

The shelter started as a volunteer-run food program around 2001, and it hopped between a couple different church locations.

“I was then running the volunteer program, as a volunteer, and seeing a lot of kids come in exhausted and sick from sleeping outside. Winters were pretty daunting,” Leimkuhler said.

By 2003 a winter shelter was set up at the Lutheran Church of the Cross. At first, YEAH! was allowed to use the space for free. However, the site has never been a perfect one, shelter representatives said, as the program can’t use the space during the day. When the shelter decided to merge with Covenant, a big draw was that organization’s daytime drop-in program for youth in Oakland, where there’s a medical clinic, lunch and a computer lab. Currently Covenant buses the young people from the Berkeley shelter to the program in the morning.

Leimkuhler said the church council has changed over the years, and the relationship between the organizations sharing the property has not always been amicable. But she doesn’t ultimately blame the church for the current circumstances.

“The fact that they are not in harmony with a youth shelter on their premises is very understandable,” she said.

Bass-Deschenes said the church is looking forward to expanding its own programs. It’s already converted a room that it recouped from YEAH! into a food pantry. However, the church does rely on the rental income from the shelter and will need to figure out other revenue when it leaves, the pastor said.

“We’re all in a liminal space,” he said.

The pastor said the church is also in early talks with Berkeley about becoming a “safe parking” site for people who live in their vehicles. So far, locations for such a program have eluded the city.

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...