The city made Old City Hall an emergency shelter shortly after noon on Friday, Sept. 11, while the community experiences very unhealthy air quality caused by several wildfires burning in Northern California. It will only be open until 6 p.m.

The shelter at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way is intended to be a bridge to nighttime shelters, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko, who said they would use “regular channels” to let the unsheltered community know about the respite location with water, sanitizer and air purifiers.

Existing shelters in Berkeley, like Dorothy Day House, Berkeley Food & Housing Project and Harrison House, are operating at limited capacities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and no other beds are available on a drop-in basis this evening after the shelter closes, Bay Area Community Services confirmed.

Though these city-funded locations have limited their occupancy during the pandemic, they’ve also expanded to become 24-hour shelters. The city has also filled nearly all of its 69 rooms at the Quality Inn and Rodeway Inn, as well as 18 RVs with service from BFHP.

Dennis “Gypsy” Packett, who lives at the ‘Here There’ encampment at Adeline and 63rd streets, said the group of residents has a supply of N95 masks to cope with the bad air. He also noted that the camp expected an influx of residents when the pandemic struck, but many elderly residents and those who had preexisting health conditions — which could have been exacerbated by the smoky, unhealthy air — have been able to secure shelter or supportive housing through the city.

City volunteers and multiple organizations have been coordinating cloth, N95 and KN95 mask deliveries from the start of the pandemic in March, and a turbulent fire season that began earlier than expected this summer. Dorothy Day House and BACs, which contract with the city, will also be handing out KN95 masks downtown today.

Masks2All, an organization founded by Cal students, has delivered over 1,000 masks to the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center, Berkeley Meals on Wheels, Dorothy Day House and the Suitcase Clinic, and shared 30,000 with MaskOakland, a group that formed in 2017 in response to the climate change crisis, worsening fire seasons and air quality in the Bay Area. Both organizations are accepting volunteers and donations.

“This weekend, we hope to distribute at least 1,500 masks in Berkeley between supporting organizations serving unhoused, disabled, and elderly [populations] and direct distribution to people stuck outside in these brutal conditions,” MaskOakland founder Quinn Jasmine Redwoods said.

An air quality advisory is in effect in Alameda County, as well as a 28-day, record-setting Spare the Air alert through Monday, Sept. 14. The air is currently unhealthy for all populations, and the city is advising that everyone stay inside due to shortages of N95 and KN95 masks for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unsheltered people have set up tents in front of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Sept. 8, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
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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...