Weathering the winter: Challenges of homelessness in winter months

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Ciecie Chen/File

As the temperature drops and the days grow shorter, about 1,000 homeless Berkeley residents will struggle to find a place to stay the night this winter.

The number of displaced people in Berkeley has risen since 2009, according to a 2017 city of Berkeley report. About 650 homeless individuals are unsheltered and 300 are sheltered on a given night, the report found.

Terrie Light, the executive director of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, said more homeless people seek out shelter beds in the winter. Although the Berkeley Food and Housing Project offers shelter year-round, other organizations such as Dorothy Day House open specifically in the winter.

“It’s a horrible thing because every day we are (to capacity) in good or bad weather,” Light said. “There are way more people than there are shelter beds in the county, even in the good months. In the winter, additional shelters add some capacity, but there still isn’t enough room.”

The winter months place an even greater burden on already homeless individuals in Berkeley, said homeless activist Mike Zint. He said homeless individuals will attempt to go to shelters or to stay dry in doorways or under overhangs, calling the rain, cold and breeze “miserable.”

The winter shelter that Dorothy Day House operates in the winter is specifically an “emergency storm shelter,” said executive director David Stegman. Last year, because of an increase in city funding and private donations, the program operated for 127 days and was able to house about 90 people per night in addition to providing food services. Still, the organization had to turn many homeless individuals away during the season.

The organization has not renewed the extended contract with the city this year, according to Stegman, meaning the shelter will only function when it rains or when the temperature drops below 40 degrees.

Stegman said Dorothy Day House and another 11 local nonprofit organizations are working on a strategic initiative committee to make finding and securing homeless services easier for people on the street. Currently, Dorothy Day House is creating a handout on accessible food, housing and transportation for the homeless.

“There are a tremendous amount of services,” Stegman said. “We just need to focus on connecting (the) homeless to those resources.”

Zint said the homeless lack not only access to housing, but also other basic commodities such as dry socks, dry bedding and warm food.

“A cup of coffee can change a homeless person’s day during winter,” Zint said.

“They also need the public to treat them the same as they would their neighbor or coworker.”

According to Stegman, the Berkeley community could better interact with the homeless population by treating them with respect, making eye contact with them and answering instead of ignoring them — even when refusing help.

The issue of homelessness is not limited to community members alone. UC Berkeley and Berkeley High School students face homelessness and housing insecurity, too, according to Stegman. Light said low-income students come to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s community meals. She also said the homeless shelter Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing offers young adults aged 18 to 25 food and overnight shelter.

Some campus student housing, such as dorm-style living, closes down over winter break. According to Ellen Topp, a campus spokesperson for student affairs, the school offers apartment-style housing for students that face homelessness over the break. However, over last winter break, no winter housing was requested, as many students already deemed at “high-risk” were proactively accommodated, Topp said.

In light of the Bay Area’s worsening housing crisis, Light, Stegman and Zint all emphasized the need for more affordable housing.

“There is homelessness everywhere now because the cost of living has come up so much in the entire state,” Light said. “There is no state in the country where people on their fixed income can afford their rent. People are homeless in ever-increasing amounts, from Portland to the Mexican border. It’s not just Berkeley, it’s not just Oakland, it’s not just San Francisco.”

Contact Mary Ford at [email protected].