a few tents and lots of trash on the ground. a handwritten sign on a fence says "Where do we go?"
Some Berkeley officials want to fund an “outdoor shelter,” with staff and services, where people have been camping at University Avenue and Frontage Road near I-80. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For months, dozens of unhoused people have camped on two triangular lots at University Avenue and Frontage Road on either side of the I-80 freeway ramps.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom released a map of 286 state properties that municipalities could take over for $1 and use for homelessness services, and those two West Berkeley lots — called “the eyebrows” by Caltrans, which owns the land — were the only Berkeley parcels in the bunch.

Now Mayor Jesse Arreguín, along with Berkeley City Council members Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson, wants to go ahead and lease the land from the state, turning the sites into an official “outdoor shelter.” Their proposal is set for the March 10 council meeting.

The item would direct city staff to rent the land from Caltrans, and look into either tents or other structures for the site. They would draw up a budget for staffing the shelter. If passed, the item would also direct staff to immediately set up bathrooms, handwashing stations and weekly garbage collection at the site, and to schedule “ongoing outreach from service providers including, but not limited to, mental health, health and coordinated entry.”

A sanctioned encampment on the eyebrows? That’ll likely raise some eyebrows.

The council already allocated nearly $1 million for a sanctioned encampment in Berkeley but didn’t officially identify a location during various votes on the matter. The University and Frontage sites weren’t part of those discussions though, as many officials have raised safety concerns around people camping alongside the busy I-80 freeway. Business owners, marina users and unhoused residents alike have also complained about the piles of trash that build up at the sites with infrequent cleanup by Caltrans.

Arreguín said his proposal will finally allow the city to take control of the situation, establishing a safer and structured environment for people who are already living in the hazardous conditions to get connected with services.

“This will be done in an organized way, with tents or structures, sanitation facilities and service providers. Right now there’s nothing. Right now it’s a health hazard,” Arreguín said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Last year the city installed a dumpster near the encampments and began weekly trash pick-up, but there are still mounds of garbage scattered around the sites.

Several tents set up behind busy, wide road
The two Caltrans “eyebrows” (the northern lot is pictured here) are the Berkeley sites on the governor’s list of state properties available for homelessness programs. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On Tuesday morning, two people who live in the southern existing encampment, directly across the street from the Seabreeze market, said they’d welcome some of the features Arreguín described.

“As long as we aren’t getting pushed around, that would be wonderful,” said Shawna, who lives in a tent with her partner and three dogs, and didn’t want to give her last name.

“I’d be thrilled if we got shower-type, bathroom-type help. I would get up and do my happy dance,” she said.

But the proposal came as surprise to some officials.

Mid-day Monday, Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes the northern eyebrow, said she didn’t expect the council to take advantage of Newsom’s offering at the time. She didn’t know anything about Arreguín’s plans, which he had placed as a “time critical” item on the agenda that day at the City Council’s Agenda and Rules Committee meeting.

“The reason the city of Berkeley has not pursued this is these are not ideal locations for providing homelessness services,” Kesarwani said in a phone interview.

In an email to constituents earlier that day, Kesarwani described the situation on the Caltrans land as “a humanitarian crisis,” acknowledging that “maintenance alone is a fleeting solution.”

However, she wrote, because there is no consensus among city and Caltrans representatives about what to do at the site, a “short-term task force” should be assembled including other groups too. Kesarwani said she wrote to Caltrans to request that process. Meanwhile, she said, the state transportation agency is installing a fence to better protect the people camping adjacent to the freeway.

After Kesarwani learned about the sanctioned shelter proposal later Monday, she said she appreciated the emergency measure and would be open to learning more about the idea.

“The sad reality is that people are there now and we do have to explore all options,” she said. “So I do want to hear more about the mayor’s proposal. But I think it’s pretty clear that it’s an area that is isolated from social services, in close proximity to fast-moving vehicles, and with significant noise and air pollution. There are also concerns about the contamination of the soil. I’d like to hear how the mayor and his co-sponsors intend to address them.”

Kesarwani said she still wants to assemble a task force of nearby businesses, homeless people, service providers and regional representatives.

“We can create task forces all we want, but are we going to wait six more months and nothing’s going to happen?” he said. “We have to do something. There’s been an impasse and the intention is to kind of break through the logjam.”

Both Kesarwani and Arreguín said they have not spoken directly with the owner of Seabreeze, the only business directly neighboring the sites. A manager at the market declined to speak with Berkeleyside on Tuesday.

Arreguín said the circumstances at the site demand urgent action.

close-up of tents and tarps
If passed, the new proposal could replace the many makeshift tents at the site with firmer structures or tents. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Arreguín said he asked Caltrans in the fall to find sites that Berkeley could use for potential outdoor shelters. In January, Newsom issued an executive order requiring the state to identify available land to make usable by local governments by the end of February. Kesarwani said it was not a surprise to see that the Caltrans eyebrows were the only Berkeley properties that made it onto the eventual map, given that the city had already scoured public land it could pursue for a shelter site.

Both Kesarwani and the March item’s co-sponsors said they want to keep looking for more locations for longterm homeless shelters, including sites outside Berkeley.

The current proposal follows a Jan. 22 vote by the council to pursue a sanctioned camp pilot program. That proposal directed staff to look into locations and come up with a detailed plan and budget for the program but specifically called for a staff of two site managers and two housing coordinators, 25 tents and a suggested stay for shelter residents of 180 days. The March 10 proposal doesn’t get into those specifics, instead directing staff to provide a plan and budget. However, the current proposal newly mentions a “community gathering structure” on the site that would be used for a volunteer-provided meal service. It also says people camping along other parts of the freeway would be asked to pack up and move into the shelter.

The state is allowing Berkeley to lease the two parcels on either side of the I-80 freeway ramps at the bottom of University Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

The council previously allocated $922,000 for 18 months of a sanctioned camp. Until now, a lot at University and Second Street was considered the most feasible location.

While the City Council ponders the foreseeable future of that site and the eyebrows, the mayor’s office and a few volunteers are reportedly planning a group clean-up day for the area this weekend.

Correction: This story previously said both “eyebrows” are located within District 1, represented by City Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani. The southern eyebrow is actually in District 2, represented by Councilwoman Cheryl Davila.

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,...