Homeless Berkeley residents face health concerns during winter

Emilia Bulfone/File

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While the holidays were a time of celebration for many, for homeless residents in Berkeley, the dropping temperatures meant increasing strains on their health that led to the death of two community members.

Billie Estes, also known as “Willow,” died Dec. 10 at her home in Berkeley as a result of respiratory failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to Sgt. Richard Macintire of the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau.

After 20 years of homelessness, according to Dan McMullan, director of the Disabled People Outside Project and longtime friend of Estes, Estes received housing a few years ago, but her time without a home had deteriorated her health and left her with a number of ailments.

The body of another deceased homeless woman, identified by community members as Laura Jadwin, was found across from Berkeley High School on Saturday.

With limited permanent housing in Berkeley and city homelessness programs that many deem inadequate, members of the homeless community fear exposure to the elements will continue to endanger them this winter.

Health and homelessness

According to a city memo dated Nov. 1 and based on data from a January 2015 count, 834 homeless people were living in Berkeley in 2015 — a 23 percent increase from the number calculated in 2009.

Of those 834, 32 percent were identified to be living in shelters or in transitional housing, while 68 percent remained unsheltered. The document identifies a 53 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people from 2009-15.

Concerns remain among the homeless population and activists about whether the number of homeless deaths this winter will grow. Many living on Berkeley’s streets are disabled and live with medical problems. A lack of housing in such conditions could aggravate their health issues.

“I know from personal experience that a great number of people living on Berkeley streets have very serious physical and mental health disabilities, many of which are untreated or undertreated,” said Amy Orgain, vice-chair of the city’s Homeless Commission, in an email. “This can put people at extreme risk for exposure.”

Orgain, who is also an attorney at the Homeless Action Center, said she has been working with a homeless client who suffers from a heart condition and has faced frequent hospitalization. According to Orgain, he is unable to store his medication and faces the risk of his possessions being stolen.

In October, a disabled woman who attempted to receive services from the city’s coordinated entry system endured an arduous process to register with the system — she had to make trips across the city to verify information and experienced delays in the application process, according to Barbara Brust, founder of the grassroots organization Consider the Homeless!.

Brust said the woman was eventually allocated a single-room occupancy, or SRO, but noted that her health was put at risk in the time it took to register with the city and receive housing.

“It’s not if you’re housed or not,” Brust said. “It’s when you’re housed.”

City responds to the crisis

City staff has increased its efforts in recent weeks to address a lack of available shelter during the winter, including the activation of an Emergency Operations Center, or EOC. After its activation, the EOC doubled the capacity of the city’s storm shelter from 65 to 130 beds between Dec. 14 and 22.

According to a memo about the EOC, city staff visited homeless encampments, informed residents of the available shelter beds and arranged for a shuttle van to transport people to an alternative shelter when one reached capacity.

A memo from Jan. 4 provides a census of the number of people who used the EOC’s temporary shelter, which indicates that on the first night, 89 beds remained available, while on the last night, 66 beds were available.

“Even when there was severe rain, people chose not to seek out shelter with places that were safer, places that were dry, places that they had use of toilets,” said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

The city also opened a 60-day winter shelter Dec. 23, located at 1231 Second St. The shelter has a 45-bed capacity and provides storage and kennels for pets.

Chakko emphasized that city staff has made repeated efforts to reach out to homeless Berkeley residents and members of the encampment, informing them of available shelter beds and services.

“What we can do as a city is we can offer resources to people … so that they can take action and help themselves, but we cannot force people to … take advantage of resources,” Chakko said.

Concerns among homeless community

For members of the homeless community, however, shelters and warming centers bring their own set of problems.

According to founder of First They Came for the Homeless Mike Zint, shelters neglect two essential conditions — privacy and accessibility.

Zint noted that scheduled shelter hours are not suitable for some homeless people with disabilities who need constant sanctuary and protection from the elements.

“The system (city staff) are bragging about has flaws,” Zint said in an email. “Disabled (people) cannot operate under scheduled hours. They need shelter at all times.”

For many homelessness activists, the solution lies in locating permanent and interim housing, which, for some, includes the establishment of a legal encampment and a moratorium on disbandments.

“I agree with sanctioned encampments because many homeless people literally do not have any other choice but to camp outside,” Orgain said in an email.

Chakko stated, however, that encampments can complicate the city’s ability to provide the homeless population with services.

“When people are living outside in public spaces, that creates and attracts different problems and issues,” Chakko said. “If we can get people into shelter, we can serve them better.”

According to Brust, the encampment organized by First They Came for the Homeless is a sober encampment. Zint added that residents keep the encampment clean and dispose of trash.

City Manager Dee-Williams Ridley, however, wrote in a December memo to Berkeley City Council that “encampments often have problematic behavior or attract it.” She added that after the organization of the encampment, feces had been smeared on Old City Hall’s doors and walkways, and pro-suicide graffiti had appeared.

Repeated disbandments

Those living in the encampment organized by First They Came for the Homeless — many of whom are disabled — have faced a particular strain on their health with the continual disbandments by city officials and Berkeley police, especially in the days leading up to Christmas, Zint said.

The first few times the encampment was dismantled, residents were allowed time to gather their belongings and relocate, though since November, the disbandments have become more aggressive, Brust alleged, and encampment residents have not been able to salvage some of their belongings.

Since the encampment was organized in October, it has repeatedly been dismantled by the city for violating California and Berkeley municipal code. According to Chakko, the city has also received complaints about behavior at the encampment.

“This is communal property,” Chakko said. “This is property that belongs to the entire community.”

According to Brust and Zint, items have been taken from encampment residents during disbandments, including tents, blankets, sleeping bags and medicine. Brust said if no one was watching a particular item, Berkeley Police Department officers or city officials would retrieve it.

“Imagine people who don’t have a bed going through this day after day,” Brust said. “These are mostly disabled people. They’re exhausted, they’re angry, they’re getting sick.”

The city retrieves and stores unattended property and has a process that allows people to reclaim their belongings, according to Chakko. For items specific to the homeless population, Deputy City Manager Jovan Grogan stated that the homeless outreach team can arrange to meet them at Transfer Station, where the items are stored. The outreach team may occasionally meet homeless residents at their location in the city and transport them to and from Transfer Station.

Brust stated that with the loss of these belongings, residents of the encampment have faced greater exposure to the elements. According to Brust, many members of the encampment have had the flu, while some, including Zint, have endured pneumonia.

“The city said (there were) numerous complaints,” Zint said in an email, referring to the city’s statement that complaints regarding the encampment led to its disbandment in December. “Aren’t our numerous complaints as important?”

Sydney Fix is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydney_fix.