The inside of the Grayson shelter in West Berkeley was designed as a temporary respite center with rows of tents. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The West Berkeley Horizon Transitional Village is drawing to a close after opening last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fate of the program, as well as that of the majority of its tenants, is up in the air.

Commonly known as the Grayson shelter, the warehouse was converted into a 50-spot temporary respite managed by staff from the Dorothy Day House in July 2021. It included a safe parking site for 40 RVs next door.

The shelter drew from Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s initial plans for a sanctioned outdoor encampment, primarily to address a sprawling former West Berkeley freeway encampment, with an unusual plan to place rows of tents indoors — instead of the standard cots and bunk beds seen in most large shelters. It also had more lenient guidelines for residents to help them feel comfortable.

It’s scheduled to close on Sept. 30. The city said four people have been permanently housed through the program, and another 11 are in various stages of acquiring housing. Another 35 people living at the shelter are receiving support but do not have housing, said Peter Radu, assistant to the city manager and homeless outreach director. Several people lived at the shelter but cycled out voluntarily during its duration, according to Dorothy Day Executive Director Robbi Montoya.

The warehouse building that currently houses the shelter is owned by San Francisco-based REDCO Development and is set to become a life sciences hub. That proposal is now in the early stages of being considered by the Zoning Adjustments Board.

This week, Radu submitted a proposal to the city council requesting that the shelter be extended until Oct. 31. Radu said the city was able to finalize a new lease agreement with REDCO in the last couple of weeks, and the council will vote to approve an extension on Sept. 29.

The city is also trying to secure funding to transition some residents into the Berkeley Inn at 1720 San Pablo Ave., similar to Project Homekey, which could come to fruition this fall.

“Continuing to provide interim housing with no gaps in service for persons experiencing homelessness in Berkeley will help reduce the overall negative impact of encampments on Berkeley’s environment and waterways, including fire and vector hazards, the accumulation of trash/debris, and unmitigated human and animal waste,” Radu wrote in the council item.

If the program is extended, it will be a relief for staff and shelter residents who say Dorothy Day’s unique approach at the shelter was hugely beneficial for the people who passed through, even if it wasn’t perfect, and they didn’t all find permanent housing afterward.

Grayson shelter kept people off the streets and brought them resources

William Lawrence Orlandi, 52, plans to stay with family after Grayson. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli
Gregory Warner, 54, doesn’t know his plans after the shelter but said, “I’m not ashamed to be on the street.” Credit: Supriya Yelimeli
Ron Teat, a 53-year-old resident at the Grayson Shelter, will be moving to the Berkeley Way Hope Center this fall. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli Credit: Supriya Yelimeli
Eric DeLeon Alvarado, 56, is currently unsure where he will stay next. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Ron Teat, a chef from Vallejo, left the city for the first time when he was 49 years old. He’s 53 now and spent years on the street in Berkeley struggling with alcoholism before city outreach workers offered him a spot at the Grayson shelter.

“In Vallejo, if I went to the store I might not make it back for three, four hours,” Teat said, describing the range of poor choices he made when it involved alcohol and the wrong company. “Since I’ve been out here, I’ve had time to grab back onto my life.”

Like others, Teat hugely appreciated the privacy of having his tent at the shelter. He said the last time he had “permanent housing” was in jail, which doesn’t exactly count.

He was in touch with family members who checked in on him during hard months of recovery while at the shelter, and he’s now set up with a studio apartment at the soon-to-open Hope Center at Berkeley Way.

“I wish this building wouldn’t close. I wish it would stay open — because other people need it too,” Teat said. “This year, Thanksgiving is at my house, thanks to Horizon.”

One resident, who goes by the name “Uncle,” created an airbrush scorpion painting for his son. When he gets his own apartment, he hopes for solitude and a kitchen where he can return to baking, from scratch. “It’s therapeutic for me,” he said. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Five Grayson shelter residents interviewed by Berkeleyside emphasized that, though the shelter had its ups and downs, staff members always cared for their needs and created an environment where they felt safe and comfortable.

Unlike other respite locations, the Grayson shelter is open 24 hours, has no curfew, no security guards and pets are allowed. It’s designed as a service hub to help people get work training, documentation, healthcare, hygiene and other services. The Dorothy Day center also hosted events like a billiards championship.

Residents can stay at the center all day, eat three meals and watch TV if they want — “but you can bet we’re going to get their documents [in order] if they’re around,” said Angelina Roman, the program coordinator who works directly with residents.

Angelina Roman, the program coordinator for Dorothy Day House, said harm reduction posed some of the biggest challenges in the shelter, but it was an essential piece of the puzzle. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The ability to remain in one place and recover is what helped some residents the most.

William Lawrence Orlandi, 52, grew up in Fremont and moved around the West Coast before returning to the Bay Area. He suffered complications with a knee injury that prevented him from working as a tile setter. Life circumstances snowballed into tense relationships with family members and ultimately homelessness in Berkeley.

As he recovered, he applied for jobs but was passed over by younger workers.

“When I got here, I felt let down and depressed because of my relationship with family, and I feel like I procrastinated [on getting work]. I blame myself for that,” Orlandi said.

But, unlike on the streets, he never felt threatened or unsafe at the shelter and could process some of his feelings. He eventually encouraged some of his homeless friends in Berkeley to come to the shelter.

He’s been able to mend his relationship with his sister and hopes to move in with her when his time at Grayson ends.

“I hope they don’t call this place a failure,” Orlandi said, explaining that he feels grateful. He said many others deserve a chance to get off the streets and out of the elements, even if it’s temporary.

‘Rethinking what a shelter looks like’ could help Berkeley in the long term, advocates say

Robbi Montoya, the executive director of Dorothy Day, said the organization had to change how it approached shelters to ensure it would work. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The Grayson shelter raised eyebrows when it first opened, as the city’s first transitional shelter of this scale was designed like an outdoor encampment — only indoors.

The main difference in Dorothy Day’s approach had to do with “harm reduction,” which refers to an array of policies designed to support people with substance abuse problems or drug addiction.

At Grayson, that meant residents could use the shelter as a safe injection site and be provided services for quitting and withdrawal.

Roman said at times, it was difficult to maintain staff who had been trained in other shelters or support structures, and Dorothy Day also had to provide counseling for them to process what they were seeing.

“It was hard watching people literally overdose or other medical fallouts,” Roman said.

The Grayson shelter had an overflowing closet where residents could come pick out new clothes. “You have to restore choices to people who are not used to having them,” Robbi Montoya said. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Residents have lockers, as well as storage in the back of the warehouse for items like tents and additional bikes. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

On one occasion, a person who used Grayson as a safe injection site, but didn’t formally live at the location, died at another location in Berkeley. The team hasn’t yet been able to identify the person. “The loss of that person was very hard,” Roman said.

But the staff was able to administer Narcan to a handful of other people who had overdosed and eventually help them receive services to move forward. They were in an environment where they could access job services, meals, clothing, friendships and ultimately stability.

“You can’t be a stickler with someone with a substance or alcohol issue. We have to get to a point where they can understand why someone acted the way they did,” Montoya said.

Roman added, “Sometimes giving grace can benefit more than sticking with the protocol, even if some people get more grace than other people think they deserve.”

Montoya said a willingness to try things differently was essential to operating the shelter. She sees it as a “101% success” even though it hasn’t led to permanent housing for all its residents.

“This program would not have worked at all if we did a traditional shelter. We wouldn’t have had the outcomes, because we wouldn’t have had the patience and understanding to give people the chance they need,” Montoya said.

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...