After 40 years of service, advocate for homeless to step down

Kevin Foote/Senior Staff
After spending more than 40 years working with Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, Boona Cheema, 67, is stepping down as executive director of the organization.

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As an advocate for the homeless in Berkeley, Boona Cheema always knew that she would dedicate her life to helping others.

After spending more than 40 years working with Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, a nonprofit that provides homeless shelters and services, Cheema, 67, is stepping down as executive director of the organization, although this is by no means the end of her advocacy work.

“I’m just making a transition out of a life that has a lot of responsibilities that I’ve carried for four decades,” Cheema said. “I will always do social justice work.”

Cheema’s involvement with BOSS first began in 1971 when she came to the organization for help after immigrating from India to Berkeley. She was pregnant at the time.

“I needed to get welfare and medical care so I could have my baby,” she recalled.

But after arriving, she never really left the shelter. Instead, she went to work for the organization and became the executive director in 1978. She could not have come at a better time.

According to Councilmember Linda Maio, Cheema came to Berkeley when the city, like many others at the time, experienced the closure of California’s mental institutions and the lack of governmental funding to help these people.

Despite the odds, Cheema oversaw BOSS’ expansion into a countywide organization with three sites each in Berkeley, Oakland and Hayward that now serve more than 1,500 people annually.

One of the reasons the programs have expanded successfully over the years is due to Cheema’s personal interaction with the homeless, according to Margot Gibney, a friend who has known Cheema for more than two decades.

“She never sets herself apart,” Gibney said. “She always knows about what’s going on with people. She never lets herself get too far away.”

However, tackling the issue of homelessness has been difficult in recent years. Cheema said she once believed there would be an opportunity to end homelessness, but when federal funding for affordable housing and health services decreased in the 1990s, the organization began to see large influxes of homeless people.

“When we look at where Congress is and the looming debt crisis, there’s absolutely no way that we can get people into the support that they need,” she said. “Housing, accessible health care, cheap transportation, none of those are priorities right now.”

However, Cheema has never lost sight of hope to help those in need. To commemorate her work, Berkeley City Council declared Feb. 23 to be Boona Cheema Day at its meeting Tuesday night.

“Boona was one of the first people to step in and organize services,” Maio said in an email. “We recognize her lifetime achievement of selflessness and dedication.”

On March 1, Donald Frazier — previously vice president of marketing at Center Point Inc., a nonprofit organization for those in need — will be stepping in as the new executive director.

“I feel it’s necessary to create a level of confidence not only with staff and participants but also with the community in regard to the continued success of BOSS,” Frazier said. “I have every wish, intent, to carry on the great work Boona Cheema has done over the years.”

After leaving the organization, Cheema hopes to spend more time with her family, write children’s books and delve into art and photography. Additionally, Cheema said she intends to continue working on public policy issues for the homeless and host her television talk show, Create Peace at Home, which focuses on equity issues.

“I will always continue to work on homeless issues,” Cheema said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Daphne Chen is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected].