‘Concrete sucks the life out of you’: Plight of winter homelessness

Jim Xu/Staff

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She is from Colorado. She appreciates the Bay Area for its weather and resources. She makes a point of feeding, clothing and counseling her struggling friends.

She notes that this winter did not compare to the deluge last year. The temperatures this winter,  albeit freezing at times, were easier to face than the torrential downpour in late October.

“You couldn’t see across the street,” she said.

This woman, who requested anonymity, has been homeless for 19 months. Some days she spends on Shattuck Avenue. She’s been spat on and urinated on. She watches her steps carefully, fearing she will step on a needle and possibly contract HIV. For her, the nights are especially hard.

On Feb. 19, the National Weather Service issued a freeze warning for inland parts of the Bay Area. Winter brings a myriad of dangers to homeless individuals, including frostbite and hypothermia.

“The concrete sucks the life out of you. It drains you,” she said.

There are three emergency storm shelters in Berkeley currently at the Francis Albrier Community Center, the North Berkeley Senior Center and the Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter, or BESS.

“Right now, we have about 89 guests every night. The majority are over 60 (years old), believe it or not,” said James Reagan, the lead supervisor and food coordinator at BESS. “These are chronically homeless people whose face we recognize, faces from People’s Park and other shelters.”

BESS opens in December each year, and this year, it will remain open through April 15. At the discretion of the City Council, BESS might stay open past that date, according to Reagan. Guests can come to BESS and expect a hot meal for dinner, a mat to sleep on and breakfast in the morning.

With struggles to escape the cold, the plight of homeless people is amplified in the winter. While there are a couple hundred mats across the city, Berkeley’s homeless population nears 1,000 people.

In Berkeley, 68 percent of homeless people are unsheltered or living in places not meant for human habitation. Only 3 percent of Berkeley’s homeless reported they would be uninterested in permanent, affordable housing if it were available. This data shows that homelessness is not a choice but a result of the housing market, according to a 2017 Berkeley Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey.

The city spends $11 million on homelessness each year, according to the office of Mayor Jesse Arreguín. This is about $11,000 per homeless individual in Berkeley.

The Colorado native notes of numerous experiences that she and other homeless people have faced that violate their human rights. “I would like this to happen: Every person in the world to spend one night with a homeless person from dusk until dawn,” she said.

Contact Ella Smith at [email protected].