Storm shelter capacity doubles as weather worsens

Joshua Jordan/Staff

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The capacity of storm shelters in Berkeley has doubled in response to a City Council directive discussed at last Tuesday’s meeting, providing about 130 people with nightly shelter as the weather in Berkeley worsens.

The City Council activated an Emergency Operations Center at their last meeting to focus on finding options for sheltering homeless people from winter weather. So far, the EOC has been able to increase storm shelter hours, open warming centers during the daytime and double the amount of storm shelter beds in addition to the 140 beds available in the regular shelter.

“It’s long overdue that Berkeley do this kind of innovative program like the navigational center,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “It’s a lot less bureaucratic than your traditional services, (and) it’s more accepting of people as they are.”

Worthington said while most members of the homeless community do not utilize these resources, this move represents the largest improvement in homeless services that have been available in Berkeley for nearly 30 years.

Guy “Mike” Lee, a member of the homeless community and former mayoral candidate, said there are several reasons shelters do not seem very populated this year. According to Lee, members of the homeless are conducting an “informal boycott” against the shelter system this year because of conflict and safety concerns.

The system was often selective about whom to allow into shelters, Lee said, including that there were certain groups — such as the transgender community — that felt excluded. He also said although he is thankful that the shelters are able to protect some people from the winter weather, he believes the emergency shelter system is not a stable solution to homelessness.

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said, however, city staff has been working diligently as the weather worsens to increase the resources available to all homeless people. The city ran a shuttle bus between the shelters located at the North Berkeley Senior Center and the Frances Albrier Community Center during the weekend to better distribute people, said Chakko.

“We want to make sure that anyone who needs shelter has a place they can go to that’s inside,” Chakko said. “We wanted to be sure that we can provide shelter away from the elements to whoever may need it in Berkeley.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguin said it is promising to see how quickly the city staff has prioritized the EOC. According to Arreguin, the next step toward sheltering the homeless community is to provide interim solutions, such as a navigational center to move help homeless encampments to more accommodating locations.

He also said it is critical to expand the capacity of the city shelters when there exists “over a thousand people on our streets but only 200 shelter beds.”

“I think this was a really critical step forward, and we’ll make sure people are not freezing on our streets,” Mayor Arreguin said, “I am so appreciative of all the work the staff has done in a very short amount of time to make this happen.”

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