Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter finds location for next 6 months

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Sam Albillo/Staff

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The Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter, or BESS, has been open for a more than one week at its new location in the Veterans Memorial Building at 1931 Center St.

The new location has a kitchen and showers — amenities not offered at any of the three previous locations. Volunteers and guests at the shelter alike highlighted the veterans building as an improvement from the past locations, from the Premier Cru building to the North Berkeley Senior Center to the Frances Albrier Community Center.

The Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter, hosted by the Dorothy Day House, used to operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Now, the Dorothy Day House is a referral-based shelter; to enter, a person must be referred there by the shelter’s management or by the city, according to lead shelter monitor John Gaona.

“I’m really glad that our guests have something that’s stable. … Just the peace of mind (has helped) the level of tension that used to increase at Ninth Street,” Gaona said. “That whole tension-building process is completely gone.”

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, BESS will be housed in the veterans building for at least six months, lasting through the winter, and has a final count of 52 beds. Previously, the Men’s Overnight Shelter was located in the Veterans Memorial Building, but it has since moved to 2140 Dwight Way.

Robert Myers, however, said the place where BESS is currently located allegedly had bed bugs when he stayed there, and he said he does not feel safe staying in a Berkeley homeless shelter.

“It’s like they don’t care,” Myers said.

Myers is a homeless Berkeley resident and lives in a tent on Shattuck Avenue — he suggested that, in order to support the population, Berkeley should operate tent cities similar to Oakland’s modular housing units.

BESS volunteers noted that the treatment of those staying at the shelter was notably better. Along with a kitchen and showers, the shelter’s new location also has more storage room for guests and a section for guests to wash their laundry.

“They’re not just housing people; they’re helping them. … Many people after that have changed, and I mean changed for the good,” volunteer Ben Sims said. “If someone’s homeless, this is where they should go to get better.”

BESS guests Gerardo Pacheco and Dwaymon Demus emphasized how expensive it is to live in Berkeley, citing rising rent costs. Demus suggested the city buy empty lots and build low-cost housing on that land.

Sims said an effective way to support homeless people would be for restaurants to give food that would otherwise be thrown away to people who don’t have access to food or to shelters.

Michelle Botman, who was present at the shelter Monday, suggested that community members should bring homeless people to shelters or support groups rather than calling the police.

“We got help. (Other people) should get help too,” Botman said. “They really need the help.”

Volunteers and guests also noted that the city is making attempts to support the homeless community. In June, the city opened the Pathways STAIR Navigation Center, which is the first part of the city’s Pathways project, which aims to house 1,000 people.

Gaona said representatives of the city meet with the shelter’s management twice a month to support them. He also noted that concerns around homeless support systems include looking for empty beds in shelters and navigation centers in order to house people.

Dorothy Day House program manager Bob Whalen also praised the city’s efforts to work with shelter employees and volunteers.

“All the City Council voted every time to accommodate this when it was possible,” Whalen said. “And then the city workers, health and human services, public works came in and really did an amazing job of fixing the building up … so that it was ready for us when we needed to get in there. It was pretty amazing.”

Contact Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SakuCannestra.