James Cope knew he wouldn’t have a place to live when he returned to Berkeley in November after losing his housing on the East Coast due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now 58, he had attended Cal and lived in the city for about two decades, and hoped he could find respite locally while trying to replant his roots.

The Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter (BESS) is hosted inside the Old City Hall, which is steps away from services offered at the Dorothy Day House on Center Street. Photo: Nancy Rubin

He was sitting at People’s Park on his second day in town when Robbi Montoya of the Dorothy Day house stopped by the park to deliver “Helping Hands” lunches. The connection led Cope to find housing at this year’s seasonal Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter (BESS), which closed up for the year on Friday morning after operating 24 hours daily beginning in late November.

Berkeley had to cut down sleeping capacity at many of its shelters starting in March 2020 because of the pandemic, but BESS and other city shelters were all able to increase their hours to stay open all day. Cope said this allowed him the stability to map out his plans for the coming year, which include starting a tiny homes initiative.

“You have to allow people time to get their life back in order, to accomplish things, and they can’t do it if they’re being told to leave in the morning at 7 a.m.,” Cope said, describing the hours he spent on the phone this year with the Social Security Administration and other government agencies. “Actually having a residence throughout the day was really important for all of us.”

Montoya said bringing down the capacity from 28 to 19 people to increase social distancing wasn’t ideal in a time of so much need, but it also helped staff members make stronger connections with the people who stayed and direct them to continued supportive housing.

City workers in partnership with Bay Area Community Services also visited the shelter and asked each person if they wanted an option for additional housing. Montoya said not everyone accepted the offer, but some, like Cope, have moved into the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s Dwight Way Shelter. Dwight Way is another location that used to have a nighttime drop-in system, but it and other city-funded shelters have all become 24-hour locations with smaller capacities.

“This situation meant that we had opportunities for some trust-building, some communication and a couple of the people were new to the BESS shelter — which is really fantastic,” Montoya said. “This year we saw a couple of different new faces.”

Montoya and others are still in the process of speaking to BESS residents and determining who wants to move into other locations, so she said final numbers of how many people will be relocated are not ready.

In Berkeley overall, homelessness respite programs during the pandemic were able to relocate about 70 people into permanent housing, temporary housing like shelters or other institutions, according to a report from the city in February. Since then, Health, Housing and Community Services Director Dr. Lisa Warhuus said an additional 33 people from Berkeley shelters have moved into permanent housing and the Safer Ground program has served 25 new households, with another nine households being able to leave the hotels. 

The BESS is closed until this coming November, but the city will open other emergency shelters for various time periods in response to weather events like fire season, extreme heat and cold.

Cope, who was also able to get his second vaccination this week at the Dorothy Day city vaccination clinic, said the service the emergency shelter provided him during the pandemic will help him sort out his life in the city for the coming years.

“I want to give back, that’s my mindset now. I don’t care about money anymore,” Cope said. “What better community to give back to than Berkeley, California, a place that’s given me so much.”

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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...