Bertha Jones and Catalina Nelson, who lived at People’s Park, on June 3, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

Dozens of tents that popped up at People’s Park during the COVID-19 pandemic have dwindled as homeless residents shift to temporary supportive housing in Berkeley before UC Berkeley begins developing student housing.

About half of the occupants have relocated to the Rodeway Inn after the university and the city announced in March that they would be leasing the property to house them for at least 18 months.

Their move comes as People’s Park activists fight to preserve the historic gathering place and block Cal’s plans to build a 12-story and six-story apartment complex on the site for over a thousand students. Construction is expected to begin this summer, but Cal officials say no date has been set yet.

Cal spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the university hopes to have residents relocated in a “collaborative effort” by the end of June.

Ari Neulight, the university’s social worker, created a census of 64 residents regularly sleeping at the park this spring. Of those people, 39 have now moved into the 42-room Rodeway Inn, according to Mogulof.

Of the remaining 25 people, two declined the offer to live at the Rodeway, two have left the area, three are still considering the Rodeway offer, four returned to their previous residence, six were placed in other local housing and eight left the area and are out of touch with service providers.

There are an additional 15 people living at the park who were not included in the spring census. Mogulof said each person has been offered temporary housing, including some who moved into the city’s Grayson shelter, and others are receiving case support from the city.

Bertha Jones, 43, moved into the Rodeway Inn this week, and it's her first time being housed in her own unit since the Bay Area native became homeless two years ago. While getting ready to move on June 3, she said she was looking for a place where she could focus on herself and have peace and quiet. She reflected on her years living in the park during the pandemic and visiting the area as a child.

"This park should not be closed," she said, calling it a tight-knit community that supports each other. "My mom and daddy used to bring me here. I've seen people die here, people come and go, I've had relationships that started here — and one ended here."

She credited activists like Nicholas Alexander who is involved with the People's Park Kitchen and her People's Park community for helping her to get her documentation and priorities in order. Without them, she said she wouldn't be where she is now.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, camping and living at People's Park was not allowed, but emergency laws to prevent further displacement and exacerbate health conditions allowed tents to accumulate at the location over the last two years. When those laws were lifted last summer, Cal did not begin evictions like the Caltrans-owned Ashby-Shellmound encampment, which is now cleared.

But activist groups like Defend People's Park say the current move is happening with little guidance and many of the residents who were at the park last week were confused about their housing status or deadlines for when they needed to relocate. One resident, who now has a room available at the Rodeway Inn, complained that his belongings and tent were put in a dumpster last week after receiving a one-day notice.

Mogulof said items are discarded at the park if left unattended for multiple days. People are allowed to fill two trash bags with their possessions and will have a small storage unit at Rodeway, but will not have direct access to it.

He also maintained that Neulight and Berkeley's Homeless Response Team are in direct contact with residents every day to support them in their transition.

"There is no fixed date for the completion of this collaborative effort to provide people in the park with the transition help they need, but we hope and expect to finish by the end of June," Mogulof said.

Moving to temporary housing is a hard transition

After living outdoors or in cars for many years, shifting to the Rodeway Inn hasn't been a simple move for some residents. Pets are allowed but there are several rules like a midnight curfew, no visitors, no keys to their own room and some residents find the meals difficult to stomach.

A man who goes by the name, Tattoo, and George Blair, who are roommates at the hotel, said the space is cramped, especially with their pets. Blair was on Neulight's census and was able to get a spot, and said he extended the offer to Tattoo, who lived at People's Park for about three months.

Blair and Tattoo said they're both felons, which has made it difficult for them to get jobs and apply for housing. They say their current lodging and restrictions are stifling and reminiscent of jails. Blair's goal is to save and buy a motorhome to live in.

Eric Morales and his dog, Bonita, are currently living at the Rodeway Inn. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Eric Morales lived in his vehicle and frequented People's Park for nearly a decade before he began living in the park during the pandemic. He was among the first to move into the Rodeway Inn in May and said he doesn't feel respected or supported in the new lodging or feel any sense of security.

"Don't get me wrong, of course, I'm grateful because I have a personal bathroom ... I feel grateful because I got a roof over my head, I got somewhere to sleep and I sleep good," Morales said. "But when the program says they're going to support us, they're not doing that. We have housing, but that's all."

He said it's much better than being around the rats that scuttle around People's Park, but the park had a supportive community that looked out for each other. He doesn't know if this will be a pathway into permanent housing for him.

Brandon Mendoza, a volunteer with Defend People’s Park, said he’s also concerned that once the housing at Rodeway expires, people will be back on the streets — this time without their tents and belongings, which would further exacerbate a cycle of homelessness.

Abode Services, which manages the housing program at the Rodeway Inn, has taken over the caseload for the new residents. Bronwyn Hogan, an Abode spokesperson, said each resident is paired with a housing navigator to devise future plans, in addition to collaborating with their existing service providers.

"We are focusing right now on building relationships with the guests and getting to know their unique needs. We know that building trust is core to supporting people with addressing their needs," Hogan said. "As we get to know people and understand their needs, we will develop goals with each guest around creating a stable housing plan post-Rodeway to home, as well as addressing other needs like health, income, etc."

The fight to preserve People's Park is ongoing

Lucy Love at People's Park on June 3, 2022 Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

As people move out of People’s Park, the fight to defend its history as a gathering space continues simultaneously with the fight to protect residents in the Bay Area housing crisis.

Defend People’s Park, organized by former and current park residents and regulars, students and neighbors, has been hosting events like the recent 53rd anniversary of the park, to showcase its vibrancy and resilience. Organizers reinforced the People’s Park Kitchen over the weekend and Cal students sat at the park’s amphitheater after a breakfast event to bring more people and liveliness to the space. 

In his regular spot on the west side of the park, art teacher Roosevelt "Rosie" Stephens worked in his sketchbook and others milled about near tents adjacent to the park's garden, a few feet from the vacant squares left in the grass by dozens of former tents.

There are currently lawsuits from four separate groups (some of them park activists from the 60s) moving through the court system to prevent Cal’s development, potentially holding up the university’s timeline to begin construction. Last month, the park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but Cal says it won't impede development plans.

The development appears to be set in stone for now, and much of the attention has shifted to ensuring homeless residents in the park are safely housed. The university also has support from some residents who have raised concerns about public safety at the park, and others welcome new opportunities for student housing in a difficult market.

Longtime activists, some of whom are also homeless, are still pushing for the park’s protection.

“When I fought this protest, we were fighting for the trees. It’s different levels,” said Lucy Love, a People’s Park occupant and activist from the 1960s. “Housing people shouldn’t be a fight, it should be an obligation. It’s something that should be done in a dignified manner.”

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...