Trailers at 1281 University Ave. will now house people who have been experiencing homelessness. Photo: Pete Rosos

The city of Berkeley is set to move dozens of unhoused people into 18 RVs and a rehabbed house as part of a new respite program approved by officials Tuesday night in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Berkeley Food & Housing Project (BFHP) will provide wrap-around services at three city sites over the next year, according to Tuesday’s staff report and contract, which the Berkeley City Council approved as an urgency item on the consent calendar during its meeting Tuesday.

“Homeless shelter participants are particularly vulnerable because they live in congregate settings with limited space and sleep in dorm style quarters,” according to the staff report. In recent months, these shelters have taken steps to reduce the possibility of COVID-19 infections by “thinning” their populations so people aren’t living in such close quarters, having people sleep “head to toe,” and creating barriers between beds that are less than 6 feet apart.

The respite program will allow BFHP to “fully decompress” its Dwight Way shelter so it’s less crowded in line with health guidelines related to COVID-19, according to the staff report. Eight or nine individuals from the shelter who are at least 65 years old or have underlying health conditions — such as respiratory issues, compromised immunities or chronic disease — will be relocated to trailers at 1281 University Ave. (near the West Street pathway) under the new agreement.

The city also plans to move couples — up to 20 people — into 10 trailers set up at 701 Harrison St., City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said during a virtual town hall over the weekend. Up to four people will be moved into a four-bedroom home owned by the city at 1654 Fifth St. (at Virginia Street).

In total, up to 34 people could be housed through the new program, according to the staff report. Everyone who is part of the program meets federal eligibility requirements and will be selected through referrals from BFHP and outreach teams, according to the staff report.

“BFHP will provide wrap-around services for the Berkeley COVID-19 respite sites, including daily wellness checks, the delivery of three meals a day, coordination of laundry services twice a week, and the provision of hygiene and cleaning supplies,” according to the staff report.

On Tuesday night, the City Council approved expenditures of about $612,000 to run the respite program for one year. The city plans to use $50,000 from the Homeless Emergency Aid Program to help pay for the new endeavor, along with money from a Community Development Block Grant. The city may need to use some of its catastrophic reserves for the program, staff noted, but wrote that more than 90% of catastrophic reserve costs could later be reimbursed by the state or federal government.

Making shelters safer

The respite program is the latest effort by city staff to address the health needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in Berkeley. The city has moved 31 unsheltered people into hotels in Oakland as part of the state’s Project Roomkey effort. But the Oakland program, called Safer Ground, is now full, according to the staff report.

Berkeley tried to set up its own Project Roomkey site in town at the La Quinta hotel on University Avenue, but that deal fell through in late April after a contract dispute.

The city is still investigating options for its own Project Roomkey site, Williams-Ridley said over the weekend, but the new respite program is the focus for now.

“The City of Berkeley will continue to work in partnership with Alameda County to identify hotels in Berkeley to house additional COVID-19 vulnerable unhoused residents,” the staff report reads. “This process will continue to take time, whereas Berkeley’s RVs and house are currently ready to be occupied.”

The city has been working to set up the new sites for months.

As of 2019, Berkeley had about 300 shelter beds in the city and an estimated homeless population of about 2,000 people. The number of available shelter beds has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic as jurisdictions have made changes to make congregate settings safer.

As of late May, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko on Wednesday, the city had already limited capacity in its Pathways shelter, Dorothy Day program and Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter. The Dwight Way shelter, at 2140 Dwight Way, was next on the list.

The city had planned to move all Dwight Way residents into La Quinta, and was ready to do so when that deal fell through.

A Dwight Way resident told Berkeleyside in early May that the change in plans had been deeply disappointing.

“We had been informed by management a couple of weeks ago that due to the fact our living situation did not provide safe distancing during the pandemic, we would be moving to La Quinta Inn. The move had been scheduled for today May 1,” he wrote in an email. All Dwight Way residents had been tested for COVID-19 earlier in the week, he added. “Professional movers were here 2 days ago to pack staff materials and we were told to be packed and ready.”

But then residents were suddenly told the deal was off.

“We have 32 men on the 1st floor, 32 women on the 3rd floor and an unknown number of vets on the 2nd floor, all in tight quarters that do not enable 6 foot distancing during this pandemic,” he wrote. “I am a senior with heart issues and was looking forward to the move.”

After what happened with La Quinta, city staff said they had to “pivot” to come up with a new plan for Dwight Way. But that took some doing, said Paul Buddenhagen, one of two deputy city managers in Berkeley. The city decided to move a smaller number of Dwight Way residents to get the shelter’s population in line with safety rules from the Centers for Disease Control.

Even with the 18 trailers and house on Fifth Street already available, however, there was a lot to think through.

“It’s not as simple as, we’re just going to do that tomorrow,” Buddenhagen told Berkeleyside. The city had to figure out how to feed everyone and provide medical care, how to treat substance issues and what to do if someone gets sick. It also had to determine the right community partner for the job. “It’s a complicated endeavor and there’s been a lot of challenges.”

Rethinking the right response

The thinking around how to help people living outside stay safe and healthy has also shifted in recent months. Initially, Buddenhagen said, the idea was to move as many people inside as possible. That was part of the push behind the state’s Project Roomkey initiative, which has secured 15,000 hotel rooms for unhoused people throughout California. Many of those rooms remain vacant, however, because staffing the program is expensive and demanding.

In the Bay Area, Buddenhagen said, health care experts ultimately decided it was safer to allow people to remain outside and in their tents rather than to bring them into congregate settings where infections might spread more easily.

As a result, the city has focused its outreach efforts on getting supplies and services to people where they live, rather than making efforts to move them. Some community advocates have said the city still needs to do more and that grassroots groups like Consider the Homeless and Where Do We Go Berkeley? are the ones out in the trenches.

Buddenhagen told the City Council in April that COVID-19 was definitely hitting the unhoused harder than the housed. Several city outreach teams go out daily to check on unsheltered people and have worked with the Berkeley Food Network to distribute food to them, he said.

Outreach workers are also giving out socks, deodorant and toothpaste, and keeping a close eye on how people are doing physically, Buddenhagen said. All of that is happening every day, but there’s still a need for more, he added.

In recent months, however, the city has received increasing complaints about campsites and debris, which has sometimes limited sidewalk access. Other than maintaining sidewalk access and ensuring health and safety standards, Williams-Ridley has said, the city is not enforcing rules about tents or camping in the city at this time.

The city has, however, launched increased cleanups to address the debris issue, the city manager said last month.

“We’re not asking for people to remove tents,” she said, but they need to move off the sidewalks. The proliferation of tents in the city is simply a reality everyone needs to come to grips with amid the coronavirus pandemic, Williams-Ridley said: “Some of us have homes to go to, others do not.”

Berkeley has also looked into where it might set up additional hand-washing stations and restrooms, but hand-washing stations have been in short supply, staff told Berkeleyside, so this effort is currently stalled.

The city also set up a temporary homeless shelter at 1730 Oregon St. to house around 30 people at the Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Services Center, which is also known as the Young Adult Project. But, so far, the city has said it has not needed to use that facility.

In mid-May, the city said two unhoused individuals from Berkeley had previously tested positive for COVID-19. This week the city would not confirm recent community reports about a third case, citing privacy concerns. The first reported case, in April, temporarily closed the Pathways shelter, which has since reopened with fewer beds.

Other than people associated with skilled nursing and long-term care facilities, unsheltered people in Berkeley are the only ones without symptoms who are eligible for the city’s testing program.

“People without health care and the unhoused have been part of the focus of our testing site since the beginning,” Chakko told Berkeleyside on Tuesday night. “We regularly do outreach to encampments … and assessing people who are unhoused for potential testing is part of our regular work.”

Chakko said Wednesday that the respite program would offer a range of services from BFHP and city staff to its participants.

“Staff has worked really hard to get the trailers, find the locations, set them up for living and set them up to have supportive services,” he said. “That’s what this contract is for.”

Chakko said there’s no date yet for when the move-ins might happen but the goal is for it to be soon.

“We’re working with Berkeley Food & Housing to have this move happen as soon as possible,” he said.

BFHP did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment about the new program.

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...