Berkeley’s homeless population faces rain, few shelters open for winter

Deborah chen/Staff

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For the upcoming winter, the city currently has about 150 year-round beds for nearly 1,000 homeless individuals on the streets of Berkeley.  

With few shelters available, homeless advocate Guy “Mike” Lee said there are many disabled and elderly people waiting for the city to make the next move. Stefan Elgstrand, chief of staff to Mayor Jesse Arreguín, added that U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who handled the case of the “Here There” encampment eviction, ordered the city to submit a plan to shelter the homeless during the winter.

Paul Buddenhagen, director of Health, Housing and Community Services, is currently working on this plan, which is due Nov. 28.

Lee said that last year, the city’s winter shelters opened before Thanksgiving, but the city has not yet opened winter shelters for the homeless this year. According to Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, after the new mayor and council took office last year, the city doubled the number of beds for the homeless community, but the same upgrades have not yet been implemented for this year.

“First and foremost, we need to do at least as much as last year, then more,” Worthington said. “It’s unthinkable that we would have less this year.”

Lee said that for the homeless population, having stability is essential in order to survive the winter, and with the rising cost of housing, the prevalence of homelessness is increasing.

According to Elgstrand, there are several nonprofits that help shelter the homeless, but these resources are still insufficient. The mayor’s office is currently spearheading The Pathways Project, which aims to create a navigation center where people can stay for several months while they are being connected to housing services; however, according to Elgstrand, the timeline for the project is not clear.

Worthington added that the BRIDGE Housing Corporation’s proposed Berkeley Way project, which is currently in development, would create 154 affordable units, one-third of which would be for 100 homeless individuals.

“If people weren’t getting evicted, they’d be able to set up better tents and make sure there’s tarps on them and stuff,” said James Blair, who lives in the homeless encampment in front of Old City Hall. “You could do that over time and not have to worry about it. I could build a tiny house.”

After BART evicted the Here There encampment Nov. 4, encampment residents have found themselves dispersed across three different encampments around the city, including a camp south of Aquatic Park, one across the street from the “Here There” encampment and one outside the Old City Hall. Due to the rain, half of the people’s tents were completely flooded this past week, Blair said.

According to Blair, who goes by “Jim Squatter,” the encampment outside of the Old City Hall has about 10 people, while the other two have between five and eight.

“When it’s raining hard like this and in the middle of the night your tent floods, there’s nowhere you can go,” Blair said. “You can go under a doorway somewhere and get kicked out soon after.”

Contact Gioia von Staden at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @GioiaVon.