Berkeley is moving vulnerable homeless individuals from shelters in Berkeley to rooms at the Radisson Hotel in Oakland to try to protect them from contracting COVID-19. Image: Google Street View

At least 13 people staying in the Dwight Way Center homeless shelter in Berkeley were moved today into the Radisson Hotel on Edes Avenue near the Oakland airport, one of the Oakland hotels the state has rented to protect people from contracting COVID-19.

Residents of three other homeless shelters in Berkeley will be screened soon with the intent of moving people Wednesday or Thursday, according to an email City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley sent Berkeley officials.

The city is trying to identify unhoused, medically fragile individuals, or those aged 65 and over, to move to the hotels, as those conditions make them more likely to suffer greatly from COVID-19. It’s part of a county effort named Operation Safer Ground.

The California Department of Social Services has also rented a second hotel for people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are presumed to be positive, the Comfort Inn & Suites, also on Edes Avenue. Abode Support will provide wraparound social services to all those in the hotels. Currently, there are about 100 people in the two hotels. The hotels have a capacity of 350 people, according to Vivian Wan, the chief operating officer of Abode Services.

Dr. Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s public health officer, said recently that no homeless person in Berkeley has yet tested positive for COVID-19.

The moves are among the strongest steps Berkeley has taken to assist its homeless population, although the planning has been going on for weeks. Berkeley has approximately 1,108 unhoused people living in cars and RVs, in tents in various encampments or tucked away. About 17% of them are 60 or older and about 28% have chronic health issues, according to data collected in 2019 for a homeless survey.

As the coronavirus broke out in California, Berkeley installed 22 new handwashing stations in various encampments and around town, on top of the of existing stations, to tamp down the spread of the virus. The city also ordered the various shelters to reduce the number of people staying in them and to install plastic sheeting around beds as a way of encouraging social distancing.

While outreach teams from the city, LifeLong Medical Center, Berkeley Food and Housing, BOSS and BACS are reaching out to see if those who qualify will move, there has been some resistance. Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he has heard that some of those approached are reluctant to live by themselves as they rely on support from their homeless friends to survive.

“We are not forcing people to locate into hotel rooms, so we are not sure what the uptake will be, but will report when we know,” Williams-Ridley wrote in her email.

The sense of urgency to move people out of encampments into hotels is mounting, especially after 70 people living in a San Francisco homeless shelter tested positive for COVID-19, Wan from Abode Services said in an email. Her agency is pushing hard to move 200 people from Alameda County shelters into the rented hotels by the Oakland Airport, she said.

Berkeley is looking to lease a hotel for the medically fragile

In addition to moving people to the Oakland hotels, Berkeley is working with the state to lease a local hotel that could be used to house homeless individuals, according to Arreguín.

The city also has secured 18 trailers that will be used to house medically fragile individuals, according to Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman. The city has also refurbished a house that will serve the same purpose. People may be moved into those locations this week, according to Williams-Ridley’s email. There is no time set yet for when people might move in.

Trailers lined up at 1241 University Ave. They will be used to house medically fragile individuals. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley is also planning to open a new temporary homeless shelter at 1730 Oregon St., the MLK Jr. Youth Services Center, also known as YAP, to house around 30 people, said Chakko. He did not know the timing of its opening as the staff is still being trained.

Berkeley is expanding hours for showers

Berkeley has also expanded the hours that people can use the showers at Willard School and plans to do the same at West Campus pool, said Chakko.  The Dorothy Day House, which runs the daytime drop-in center in the Veterans’ Building on Center Street, has had to reduce the number of people who can take showers in a day from 30 to 20. The number had been 80 before the virus struck.

Complaints about the conditions in encampments

Many advocates for the homeless have complained that Berkeley has not done enough or moved quickly enough to protect those living on the streets. The Seabreeze encampment by the University Avenue and I-80 and the area around the Gilman exit have become particular sore points as trash and debris have been accumulating. The land belongs to Caltrans and the state agency has vowed to do more regular trash pick-up, said Arreguín.

But that hasn’t happened, leading Andrea Henson, one of the founders of Where Do We Go, Berkeley? to rent a Bobcat to move the trash into a pile so Caltrans will pick it up.

“Why is it that Andrea, is hiring contractors, directing the contractors, and raising the money to pay them?” Osha Neumann of the East Bay Community Law Center wrote in an email to city council members. “That money could buy groceries and tents and supplies for the people in the encampments. Why is the City not footing the bill? Why is the City not hiring the contractors or using its own skilled employees to do the job?”

Arreguín said the city did install dumpsters nearby, but “it’s been a challenge to get Caltrans to step up and clean their property.”

Even though Berkeley is entering its fifth week of shelter-in-place rules, the city has moved swiftly to help those experiencing homelessness, said Chakko. It takes time to identify site, find the funds, and train staff to work at the various facilities.

“We don’t want to throw people into a room and assume that’s all they need,” said Chakko. “They need support.”

Update, 4/15, 12:30 p.m. Berkeley has also moved fewer than ten people who are exhibiting symptoms for COVID-19 to the Comfort Inn, said Chakko. Nine “medically fragile” people from the Dorothy Day House shelter on Center Street were moved to the Radisson in Oakland today and another nine will be moved soon.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...