New West Berkeley homeless shelter opens as city emerges from COVID-19 pandemic

The Grayson shelter has space for about 50 people, and organizers hope it will be a warm, transitional space, rather than a permanent home.

Tents at Grayson Shelter
Tents in rows at the shelter the Horizon Transitional Shelter at 742 Grayson St., which opened on July 1, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Berkeley officials cut the ribbon on a year-round, 24-hour homeless shelter in West Berkeley on Thursday, ending the city’s pandemic-long search for an outdoor sanctioned encampment with the opening of an indoor shelter that will be home to about 50 people until September 2022.

The shelter is a milestone for the city, which — like jurisdictions throughout the Bay Area — had to do a near-overhaul of its existing homeless services over the last year as the COVID-19 exacerbated the regional housing crisis. Berkeley cut down capacity at all of its shelters due to pandemic safety regulations, but also turned drop-in locations into 24-hour shelters and stopped encampment sweeps and the enforcement of sidewalk laws during the shelter-in-place order.

Now, with the state economy reopened, vaccination rates high and social distancing requirements lifted, the Horizon Transitional Shelter will be a crucial part of the city’s strategy in recovering from the pandemic and finding shelter for people who live on the streets, and in tents — especially the city’s largest, Seabreeze encampment at University Avenue and Frontage Road off of Highway 80 near the Berkeley Marina.

The West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street opened July 1, 2021.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín speaks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street on July 1, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli
The West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street opened July 1, 2021.
Berkeley city officials celebrate the opening of the West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street on July 1, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The shelter, at 742 Grayson St., is managed by Dorothy Day House and is designed as a hybrid between a traditional shelter with individual beds, and Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s original plan of a sanctioned outdoor encampment with tents. The cavernous warehouse space currently has room for about 50 people, with designated “neighborhoods” (that haven’t yet been named) connoted by colored pillars, small personal storage cubbies, a breakfast area, recreational space with a library and “movie theater” and a back storage area that will allow residents to store larger items — like tents — for when they depart from the space.

When residents arrive at the space, they’ll complete basic paperwork, agree to a program agreement contract that lays out several rules and responsibilities both for residents and shelter staff (i.e., treat one another with respect, no smoking indoors, be safe and clean, no drug use), be given a change of clothing (bagged and laundered per the shelter’s bed bug protocol) and offered a shower. Residents must be 18 or over and are allowed to bring up to two bags of belongings and one bicycle, and are not allowed to bring oversized items, carts or furniture.

The West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street opened July 1, 2021.
The breakfast area at the West Berkeley homeless shelter on June 30, 2021, one day prior to opening. There will be three meals a day at the shelter. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli
The West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street opened July 1, 2021.
A posted reminder that getting sick won’t result in losing your bed at the West Berkeley homeless shelter. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli
The West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street opened July 1, 2021.
The library and movie theater area (the TV is on its way) at the West Berkeley homeless shelter on June 30, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli
The West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street opened July 1, 2021.
Each tent comes with a 27-gallon storage container that has bedding, toiletries, a pillow and other small items. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Robbi Montoya, executive director at the Dorothy Day House, has been putting in 16-hour days at the shelter, converting it from a stark warehouse into a livable space since the city first secured a lease from San Francisco-based REDCO Development in April.

She took a rare break to sit down in the shelter’s library Wednesday, the night before opening, and scanned the space for remaining tasks and spiffing-up before the next morning’s opening ceremony. Montoya wants the space to prioritize comfort, healthy boundaries and be a good option for anyone — whether their final goal is permanent housing, or not.

“The encampment population is different than the street population, which is different from the shelter community; it’s all different, people don’t get that. They think homelessness is just a set circumstance of one kind of people,” said Montoya, explaining that though the community is small (she recognized all but five of the roughly 25 people, who have been referred to the shelter so far), people’s needs and requirements are very different. “No matter how much we try to make it into an encampment style, it’s still doors to some degree.”

Robbi Montoya
Robbi Montoya stands in an unfinished portion of the shelter on the day before opening. The private area within the shelter will be offered to women and female-identifying people who have experienced trauma to have a safe sleeping space. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

“Over time — and I’m hoping it’s a very short period of time — people are going to recognize, that there’s no hidden agenda, that there’s no surprises, that ‘Oh, so nobody is forcing me to do anything.'”

Furry friends will be allowed in the space at up to one pet per person, along with free veterinary services and pet food. There will be no curfew to leave and come back, but residents who return at night will have to ring the doorbell to the shelter and interact with program staff to check in.

A safe parking program for recreational vehicles is also in its initial stages, and will be based in the curb area around the shelter. So far, city workers are doing outreach in areas near the Berkeley Marina and West Berkeley, which have the largest amount of people living in RVs.

“Part of the challenge is that, during the pandemic, we had to decompress our shelters, we couldn’t have people living in such close quarters. So we saw a visible increase in unsheltered homelessness on the street,” Arreguín said. “The crisis is significant, and while we’re starting with 50 people, we hope to increase that number to up to 100 people. It’s facilities like this that make an impact and we know we need to do a lot more.”

Some Seabreeze encampment residents will move in to the shelter, but others are uninterested

Seabreeze Encampment, July 2, 2021
William Baird, 31, who lives at the Seabreeze encampment. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

City leaders are marketing the shelter as designed to relocate residents at the Seabreeze encampment, which has been hugely controversial for the city of Berkeley over its numerous iterations. Camp tenants — many of whom have been pushed to the space after being swept from other city locations — have endured large fires, and multiple car strikes due to its location next to a freeway onramp.

Still, some of its residents prefer sleeping outdoors to the city’s new shelter.

William Baird, 31, lives on the north side of the encampment at University Avenue and West Frontage Road. City outreach workers headed by Sgt. Darrin Rafferty, who has done the bulk of the shelter’s groundwork, were at the area on Friday morning, and Baird said he’d been offered a referral to stay at Horizon.

Seabreeze Encampment, July 2, 2021
The Seabreeze Encampment at University Avenue and West Frontage Road, July 2, 2021 Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Baird is currently waiting on his partner to receive word from social workers about potential housing options. Though the space may be an improvement to other shelters, he said it looks like a “FEMA camp” to him, and he would rather live in an open space with his own moral code rather than revisit bad experiences he’s had in homeless shelters.

“Honestly, hell, I’d rather be out here and be able to go as I please, when I please, than be behind a wall,” Baird said. “I spent six and a half years in prison.”

His current plan, with a Caltrans sweep of the Seabreeze encampment planned at the end of the month, is to relocate to another encampment near the Aquatic Park.

Enforcement of the city’s sidewalk ordinance will return this month

The West Berkeley Horizon shelter on Grayson Street opened July 1, 2021.
A crowd gathered at the opening of the West Berkeley Horizon Transitional shelter on Grayson Street, July 1, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Among the rules paused in Berkeley during the COVID-19 pandemic were the sidewalk ordinance, which was implemented in 2018 and prohibits accumulation of personal objects on public spaces, and the prohibition of sleeping in parks. The city has begun an “education campaign” informing people about the change in policy, and is timing enforcement with the opening of the new shelter.

“What we want to do is not impact people in a way that they are left stranded in life without any resources,” Berkeley city manager Dee Williams-Ridley said at the new shelter on Thursday. The city will also be tapping into Alameda County’s and the state’s “Project HomeKey” resources that were activated during the pandemic to procure 40 more hotel rooms for residents.

This will be in line with $15 million in Measure P spending (which was also used for the West Berkeley shelter) on homeless services and programs from this year’s recently approved budget, including $5 million for Homekey, $2.4 million in estimated costs to take people to the hospital when they are in mental health crisis; $1.6 million in housing subsidies and other support to keep people from losing their homes in the first place; and $1.5 million for the Pathways Center on Second Street.

But it will mean that the city’s ultimate goal, which Williams-Ridley described as long-overdue, is to shut down and clear out the Seabreeze encampment.

“We need to make the gateway into the city attractive and beautiful, and — not only about the beautification of it — but helping people, and making sure that they have some better place to go, because that’s unsafe and dangerous,” she said.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's homelessness and housing reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.