In 1967, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which closed state mental hospitals in favor of community-based care. There was one problem.
“The funding never came and the facilities were never built,” said Donald Frazier, CEO of the Berkeley nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, or BOSS.
As former state hospital patients suddenly found themselves on the street, members of Berkeley’s Jewish community “stepped in to fill the gap,” Frazier said. Leading that effort was Ursula Sherman, a librarian and lifelong human and civil rights activist in Berkeley, who helped create BOSS in 1971.
With a mission to “help homeless, poor, and disabled people achieve health and self-sufficiency, and to fight against the root causes of poverty and homelessness,” BOSS is now one of the largest nonprofits of its kind in the East Bay. Almost 4,000 people and families are served every year by more than 50 BOSS programs at its 14 sites in Alameda County.
BOSS will be holding its long-postponed 50th anniversary celebration on Oct. 26. Because of the pandemic “we didn’t want to do it in person and didn’t want to do it virtually,” Frazier said.
Since its founding, BOSS has grown tremendously. Frazier now oversees an $18 million budget, made up of federal, state and local funding and private foundation, corporate and individual donations, and 150 employees.
When it opened in the mid-1970s, BOSS’s largest shelter at 711 Harrison St. in West Berkeley was the first shelter for homeless disabled adults in California. The shelter was renamed Ursula Sherman Village in 1991. and grew to include shelter beds for families, a children’s learning center, playground and gardens.
“It was Ursula’s vision for a safe, supportive welcoming environment that shaped the BOSS housing programs,” Frazier said.
BOSS’s mission was tested during the pandemic, when the county’s unhoused population grew by 22%. Before the pandemic, BOSS operated three shelters; it now has six.
From fiscal years 2021-22 to 2022-23, BOSS has seen a 34% increase in homeless individuals served, a 35% increase in homeless families served and a whopping 56% increase in the number of families that its staff found permanent housing for in the community.
BOSS also operates six Supported Independent Living programs that provide permanent affordable housing to low-income, homeless and special needs populations with on-site support services. Two are in Berkeley: McKinley House at 2111 McKinley Ave., and Step-Up Housing, at 1367 University Ave., an innovative public-private partnership that will break ground at the end of September.
When Frazier took the helm in 2013, he expanded the nonprofit’s mission by developing programs to address mass incarceration and violence in the community as crises stemming from systemic racism and inequities.
In particular, BOSS has focused on the “poverty, crime, violence and incarceration corridor” that extends from South Berkeley through West Oakland, Central Oakland, East Oakland, Ashland/Cherryland and South Hayward. Such a corridor exists, Frazier said, because of “key determinants of health inequity and historical roots in persistent poverty and racial residential segregation” that affect mostly Black and Latinx communities.
In response, BOSS has created a re-entry housing, violence intervention and trauma recovery campus in Oakland, Frazier said.
Over the years, the organization has also developed a social justice arm that trains participants to advocate for themselves and educates policymakers. According to Frazier, it’s often governmental policies that negatively impact the individuals, families and communities BOSS serves.
“We’re trying to educate policymakers to create legislation that is beneficial to all,” he said.
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