Empty aluminum trays sat on top of the stage at People’s Park, remnants of a meal served the day before. As I walked away from the stage, a man walked toward me.
“Is there food there?” he asked, and I said the trays were empty except for a few lettuce leaves. He turned the trays over and I chronicled an estimation of his age and race in case the volunteers I shadowed missed this individual in their biennial census of Berkeley’s homeless.
It was not yet 7 a.m. and the temperature hovered at 45 degrees; the team I followed had counted 13 individuals sleeping below trees, on a bench, on sidewalks and walking with their belongings. By day’s end, volunteers had counted 664 homeless living outside of shelters, the highest number of unsheltered individuals counted in Berkeley and Alameda County in the last eight years.
Already in a City Council-declared “homeless shelter crisis,” the population living on Berkeley’s streets and shelters grew to 972 individuals this year — up about 16 percent from 834 persons in 2015. Whereas the number of individuals living in shelters has remained relatively stable since 2009, the population living on Berkeley’s streets and sidewalks has climbed 79 percent since 2009’s count.
Every two years, volunteers from across the country complete a homeless count in their respective cities during the last 10 days of January. The designated days minimize the number of people who are counted twice, should they move to a different city.
In Alameda County, the count is organized by EveryOne Home, a nonprofit that coordinates the census that is required for federal homelessness and housing funding.
Volunteers counted more than 5,600 homeless individuals in Alameda County, the majority of whom live outside of shelters. There has been a 39 percent growth in homelessness seen across the county since 2015, more than double Berkeley’s increase.
Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home, however, argues against comparing one city’s homeless statistics against another, as some counts have been more meticulous than others.
“Our methodology is more comprehensive (this year),” de Coligny said. “It’s the first time ever that we walked every census tract and counted people right at dawn.”
De Coligny advised to see this year’s count as a new baseline. In previous years, volunteers were not present on every street across Alameda County — this year, 345 volunteers and 99 paid guides covered every census tract in the county.
De Coligny attributed the dramatic increase in the homeless population count to the new survey methodology and a growing population of people who are homeless.
“We also think there are more homeless people and unsheltered people than there were two years ago,” de Coligny said. “We think more people are losing their housing.”
Data from individuals surveyed indicate that the county’s homeless population often consisted of people who were local residents before becoming homeless. Eighty-two percent lived in Alameda County prior to becoming homeless, according to the survey.
When asked what could have best prevented their homelessness, rent assistance was the top response — 57 percent of those surveyed in the county reported money issues.
Between 2010 and 2014, median rents across the Bay Area increased by 38 percent while wages declined in a similar time period, according to a 2015 report by the Association of Bay Area Governments.
“I’ve lived in this town for $30,000 or less for the last 20 years,” said Brett Schnaper, a 55-year-old Berkeley resident who became homeless in August 2016.
Schnaper moved to Berkeley in 1979 for school and later worked as a cook. He lives with the First They Came for the Homeless advocacy group, which he prefers to emergency shelters. He said the thought of parasites, disease, violence and being in a room with 70 strangers prevents him from sleeping in shelters.
Schnaper would prefer living in a home to camping — only 2 percent of the individuals surveyed in January responded that they are not interested in housing, whether it was independent and affordable or housing with supportive services.
Volunteering on the ground
Shaunette Williams, 48, arrived at the Berkeley Public Library with dozens of other volunteers at 5 a.m. the morning of the count. Before I approached her, I would never have known she and two of her children were homeless and working as paid guides for the count.
“You can be homeless (here) and don’t have to look homeless,” Williams said. “Berkeley’s a good place — it’s safe, you can eat well.”
Williams and her children became homeless in 2015 when her husband passed away. Born in Oakland and a graduate of Berkeley High School, she returned to Berkeley to start anew.
The Williams family is among the 270 homeless families in Alameda County. Though her family lives in a shelter – like 96 percent of homeless families – Williams remarked that it was difficult to receive services since she and her children are all grown adults.
“I’m going to fly, just got to get my wings up,” Williams said. “If I (have) to work at 4:30 in the morning, as long as it’s positive, I’ve gotta do what I gotta do. I know I’ll be alright.”
Before and after the count, I interviewed residents living on the streets, on the side of a riverbank and in parks. Time and time again, I learned of individuals who once had housing, but death or mental illness in the family left them homeless — and the importance of community for them today.
Schnaper told me how “street kids” helped him learn how to live and how people protect one another. Williams shared how she and her kids may serve as a model for other families living in shelters. Robert Schroeder, a 58-year-old homeless man, said he was given a tent and $20 from a neighbor near where he camps, adding that two people helped him set up his tent.
Investing to prevent homelessness
The annual count informs allocation of federal homeless funding, but the federal funding is not enough to cover housing, shelter and homeless prevention.
Berkeley-specific data that details characteristics such as age, race, use of services and self-reported health conditions will be available mid-June.
Since the last homeless count, Berkeley has developed a coordinated entry system for homeless individuals to request services. This system may serve as a model for the county and helps to reduce duplication of services among nonprofits, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.
Residents have also voiced their support for increased funding to reduce homelessness. In November, voters passed Measure U1, an tax increase on property owners with more than five rental units, to increase funding for affordable housing and provide assistance that prevents Berkeley residents from becoming homeless.
In its upcoming budget review, City Council will consider increasing funding to the Housing Retention Program, such as providing a one-time $5,000 grant per household to keep them from becoming homeless.
Alameda County, Oakland and Berkeley voters all committed to passing homeless assistance legislation with Measures A1, KK and U1, according to Wilma Chan, director of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, at a press conference.
“All levels of government must invest in creating more (affordable housing), especially for the disabled and extremely low-income,” said Chan.