tents on a sidewalk with the BART train in the backgroun
Tents set up on at Adeline and 63rd streets on the Berkeley-Oakland border, March 5, 2020. Photo: Kyle Martin

Update, March 14: The city now has a total of 28 hand-washing stations set up; eight of them were set up before the current operation. The city says it has handed out 276 outreach kits with hand sanitizer and COVID-19 information directly to community members in addition to the 560 kits it gave to local service providers.

Original story: On Thursday morning, members of the city’s emergency operations center descended on the “Here There” encampment at Adeline and 63rd streets in South Berkeley.

The workers were dropping off a hand-washing station — part of a new effort to help the unhoused stay clean so as not to be infected with the coronavirus. City workers also knocked on the tents of the 20 or so inhabitants of the encampment and handed out hand sanitizer and information about COVID-19.

Nicholas Alexander, who lives at “Here There,” welcomed the gesture as it means there are now two stations at the encampment.

“I feel like [the city] is trying the best they can, especially with sending representatives this morning,” he said Thursday. “If someone in the camp doesn’t know about [coronavirus] at this point, they’re being pretty ignorant. You can’t just hold everyone’s hand throughout life, unless they really need that.”

In the past week, Berkeley has set up at least 20 hand-washing stations at parks, libraries and homeless encampments around the city, and handed out 560 outreach kits with hand sanitizer and information, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s office. It costs the city about $2,000 a month for the stations, according to Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen.

“Our Public Health Division and Emergency Operations Center has been working diligently to protect our most vulnerable residents from COVID-19, including those who are unhoused by providing sanitation equipment to encampments,” Arreguín said in a statement Tuesday, calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state government to support cities with more funding, equipment and resources.

Though the World Health Organization on Wednesday officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, meaning the deadly disease has spread around the globe, there are currently just two confirmed cases in Berkeley, according to officials. Both patients contracted the disease through travel.

No one in Berkeley has yet gotten COVID-19 by “community spread,” although the Alameda County Department of Health announced Thursday that two people in the county had gotten it that way. The risks of contracting the coronavirus remain low, according to Dr. Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer. Her department has issued some steps the public can take to protect themselves.

Since one of the best ways to stay safe is by washing one’s hands frequently, alerting the public to the location of sinks and hand-washing stations has become a priority, the city has said. Public bathrooms and hand-washing facilities are available at five public library branches in Berkeley, drop-in and senior centers, and the Lava Mae mobile shower service. It operates Mondays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Alcatraz Avenue and King Street, and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Second and Cedar streets. The city has created a map of the hand-washing stations.

A reminder for those coming to Dorothy Day House to clean their hands. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

The Dorothy Day House, a year-round, 24-hour shelter and drop-in center in the Veterans Building on Center Street, which serves about 125 breakfasts each day, has set up extra hand sanitizer stations and will continue to offer resources for showering, doing laundry, getting meals and staying clean, said John Gaona, the guest services coordinator. In the last week, the shelter has doubled signage regarding coronavirus and announces hand-washing before every meal.

“It adds a level of comfort to [unhoused people], to think that they’re doing what they can,” said Gaona. “It certainly indicates to them that we’re taking this seriously on their behalf and we’re doing what we can so they can participate to the best of their abilities. With certain elements of the unhoused community, they already feel marginalized, they already feel like ‘we’re just homeless people, so who cares’ — but we care.”

One positive is that there hasn’t been a drop in the number of volunteers coming to help, said Dorothy Day program manager Robbi Montoya, who described these individuals as “hardcore grassroots” workers. As of Thursday, not a single one in a group of about 60 had canceled a shift, Montoya said.

“In the city, it’s been cancellation after cancellation,” Montoya said. “But we just don’t have that luxury.”

Shaun Johnson, 46, said he heard a news report about coronavirus on his phone. He’s received services from the Dorothy Day House for the last 16 years and said he can’t control what everyone else does, but he can keep himself clean.

“I wash my hands over 70-some-odd times a day — I like to be clean,” Johnson said. “I may be homeless, yes, but I like to stay as clean as possible.”

He said he didn’t need to be told to wash his hands during the spread of infectious disease, because staying clean is already at the top of his mind.

Joe Drake Jr., 30, (left) pauses his art project for a quick photo with Mary Curtis Ratcliff at the Dorothy Day House in Berkeley on March 5. Photo: Kyle Martin

Montoya said she is focusing on empowering shelter visitors to inform themselves about coronavirus. Insisting on hand sanitizing is a subtle way of keeping residents mindful about the importance of cleanliness.

“Nobody in here wants to get sick because, for them, getting sick is more fearful — they take it very seriously, they really do,” said Montoya.

Many of those who use Dorothy Day’s service are at a high risk of catching COVID-19. They are older and have underlying conditions like asthma, diabetes, coronary disease and suppressed immune systems. In addition, if they are sick or exposed, those without permanent shelter have nowhere safe to go to recuperate.

“A lot of these people’s immune systems are somewhat compromised, over half the people who come here are 50, 55 or older,” said Bob Whalen, program coordinator.

“We are a target population but, at the same time, where do you tell somebody to go if they’re sick? You have to stay out of here for a week, go sleep on the streets?” Whalen said. “The shelter staff is very attuned to the people that are living here and when somebody’s sick they will know it, but I don’t know if that’s come up yet.”

man and his dog in a tent
Nicholas Alexander, 33, with his dog, Rahula, at the “Here There” homeless encampment at Adeline and 63rd streets, March 5. He said he is glad Berkeley dropped off a second hand-washing station. Photo: Kyle Martin

Ayat Jalal, 47, and Tim Petty, 32, currently live at the “Here There” encampment.

The camaraderie of the encampment is one of the main support systems they have to promote hygiene and safety, which isn’t the norm at every encampment, said Petty.

“For me, it’s easy to not be afraid but, for folks who are battling with other health concerns, I think it’s extremely important that when, and if, the virus spreads, there is the ability for programs like LifeLong [Medical Care] to have staff that will go to encampments and just check up on people, so that life can be preserved that way,” said Petty.

Jalal, co-founder of First They Came for the Homeless, an advocacy group for homeless rights, is pushing for more land from the city to set up tiny homes and get residents away from the streets, which exposes them to a host of general diseases and infections every day.

“I’m feeling unprepared, we’re at the mercy out here,” Jalal said. “The coronavirus, like the fires that happened, keep showing us that we who are out here, against the elements, face every threat first before society. Unfortunately, we face it [even] without corona.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...