They huddled under the awning outside the swim center, some clutching half-empty bottles of shampoo, others, half-empty bottles of liquor.
They were the homeless of Berkeley, waiting outside the closed pool at Willard Middle School to take their Saturday morning showers.
The city has run a daily shower program at Willard Pool for the homeless for over 10 years. Participants receive a towel and liquid soap — for most, hot water is the draw.
“Some of these people don’t care about hygiene,” said a local who identified himself as Will. He has been homeless in Berkeley for 17 years and said he uses the shower services daily. “But a hot shower? No one can say you don’t feel better after walking out of that shower. You’re a happy American.”
The shower program operates from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekends. The hours have not changed since Willard Pool closed last summer after a June 2010 ballot measure — which would have raised $22.5 million in bonds — failed. If it had passed, the measure would have allocated money to retrofit Willard and the pool at West Campus Junior High School, replace the city’s warm water pool and construct an all-purpose pool at Martin Luther King Jr., Middle School.
The pool has since been filled with dirt, though Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington — whose district includes the Willard neighborhood and who helped start the shower program in the late 1990s — said there are plans to work to reopen Willard in the future.
The city currently operates three public pools, one of which — the warm water pool located on the Berkeley High School campus — will close in December.
Worthington added that city council members all agreed the shower program should continue despite the closure of the pool.
“I strenuously argued that even if the pool was closed, we should still keep the shower program,” Worthington said. “The city council all agreed to keeping the program open in spite of the fact that the pool was closing.”
Few other options
Many of Berkeley’s homeless have access to showers at men’s and women’s shelters, but space is limited. Those left to sleep in the streets have few other options, Worthington said.
“It’s one of the issues that’s recurring when we’re trying to provide services to homeless people — they need a place to sleep, some need a shower or clothing if they’re trying to get out and look for a job or going to an educational program,” he said. “They need to be able to make themselves presentable … If you’re staying at the men’s or women’s shelters, you can take a shower there. This is for people who don’t have a shelter bed.”
According to the findings in EveryOne Home’s 2011 Alameda Countywide Homeless Count and Survey Report, 53 percent of the 2,212 homeless individuals in Alameda County are unsheltered. EveryOne Home is a non-profit organization that works to end homelessness in the county.
Program attendant Asmerom Kidane, who has worked at Willard for over eight years, said the common misconception about the homeless in Berkeley is that none of them work.
“There’s people here who have jobs and are just homeless — others have cars and just can’t afford rent. Some can’t pay their water bills,” he said.
Kidane and Cierra Moses — two of six attendants who rotate shifts at Willard — sat at a table tallying the number of people who entered the building. They walked through the locker room to ensure that everything was running smoothly and offered greetings to their regular attendees.
Twenty-five minutes into the hour-long shower period, only two towels were left. Many proceeded to bathe without towels.
According to city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, the city contracts the towel service to a private company. The allocation is limited to 20 per day — the company washes them and brings more every Friday.
According to Clunies-Ross, expected turnout is 15 to 18 individuals, with a few more on cold days. The attendants said they expected 20.
Of over 20 individuals who entered the building, only two were women. Kidane said that most lived in Berkeley, but some came from neighboring Oakland and Richmond.
“We only have 20 towels left,” Moses said. “Those have to last till Friday.”
Friday was six days away. It was a chilly Saturday morning in Berkeley.
Sarah Mohamed is the lead city government reporter.