City chooses senior center as emergency shelter location

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Joshua Jordan/Staff

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The city has chosen the North Berkeley Senior Center to act as an emergency shelter this winter, replacing the former shelter at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church that was damaged in a fire this September.

The North Berkeley Senior Center is one of four winter shelter locations including the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, the Phillips Temple CME Church and the Frances Albrier Community Center. According to Paul Buddenhagen, city director of health, housing and community services, each shelter can house up to 65 people and will open when rain or temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit are forecasted for the evening. Only one shelter will be open at a time.

According to Buddenhagen, the First Presbyterian Church will function as the primary location and the others will serve as potential options depending on which of the spaces is available.

Despite the establishment of the senior center as an additional shelter, some community members remain concerned that the shelters will not meet the homeless community’s needs.

“It’s not a creative or cost effective solution to the crisis,” said former Berkeley mayoral candidate and homeless activist Guy ‘Mike’ Lee in an email.

Mike Zint, a homeless activist and founder of First They Came for the Homeless, said that with only 65 beds available in the shelters and hundreds of homeless living in Berkeley, the shelters do not provide enough space.

The emergency shelter at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church also had a capacity of 65 people in previous years, according to Stefan Elgstrand, Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguin’s chief of staff.

Zint added that while the options of affordable housing and tiny homes remain unavailable, tents offer advantages over the emergency shelters provided by the city.

“The tents provide isolation for healing and privacy. Common rooms do not,”  Zint said in an email. “Tents prevent bugs and germs from spreading. Tents allow you to leave gear. Tents don’t have hours of operation.”

Arreguin, who is also a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Possible Locations for a Sanctioned Encampment, stressed that the current shelters are not enough to address the homeless crisis in Berkeley and said he would work to improve the availability of housing and shelters as mayor.

“With the fire that happened at the church … I’m very glad that we found a replacement location, but there is more we need to do,” Arreguin said.

According to Buddenhagen, the organization of this year’s emergency winter shelter options required more work because of the loss of the First Congregational Church as a shelter after the fire.

“The council felt very strongly that we needed to take immediate action to get the storm shelter off the ground,” Arreguin said.

In terms of finding additional locations for shelters and warming centers, Arreguin said the city has been looking at using city-owned facilities but it would explore all potential options.

“As mayor … one of my top priorities is to put in place warming centers and shelter beds,” Arreguin said.

Contact Sydney Fix at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydney_fix.