‘Housing is a human right’: Berkeley homeless services provide rehabilitation

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Over the course of one year, at least 2,000 people in Berkeley experience homelessness for some period of time, according to information gathered by the city’s Health, Housing and Community Services, or HHCS, department. Currently, Berkeley offers various rehabilitation programs to provide the local homeless population shelter, housing and mental health services.

Berkeley’s central entry point for homeless services is the Coordinated Entry System, or CES, which happens through the North County Hub. As a policy, the CES aims to address homelessness in an efficient and equitable manner by incorporating three main practices throughout Berkeley homeless services: standardization, prioritization and coordination.

“Our goal is to get people sheltered and into housing,” said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. “Through the hub, we created a single point of entry for the homeless. … This is how we get people into housing and supportive housing.”

The hub collaborates with the cities of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville as well as the Berkeley Food and Housing Project to provide services. Homeless people or people at risk of homelessness begin the entry process by calling 211 or through outreach staff members who visit parks, encampments and shelters.

From there, callers are screened, and their homeless situations are assessed in order to transfer them to the correct services offered by Berkeley. Single adults and people from the ages of 18 to 25 are transferred directly to the hub, while families are transferred to the Family Front Door in Oakland.

“Through the Coordinated Entry System, we are tracking everyone and helping those that are most in need,” Chakko said. “Not only is what we’re doing the best practice, we are following a federal mandate to make it easier to address homelessness.”

Toya Groves, a housing specialist at the Berkeley Drop In Center, acts as an advocate for high-need clients who go through a reassessment process. After assessment over the phone, clients are placed on a list that categorizes them based on their needs.

Individuals assessed to have high needs such as long-term homelessness or disabilities are prioritized and placed higher on the list. According to Groves, however, a client who had recently suffered from a stroke was placed at No. 600 on the list before Groves advocated for his reassessment.

“The list is always moving — you refer someone, and someone may be assessed to have more need than the person you referred,” Groves said. “I had to advocate for (my client) to get on a higher spot — it was a very long and drawn-out process.”

Groves added that people who frequent the Berkeley Drop In Center are predominantly people of color who have historically lived in southern Berkeley and have been “pushed” out of their homes. While the city of Berkeley and the hub provide homeless services, Groves said more can be done.

According to Groves, “bureaucratic” issues within the hub’s system cause overlap in the distribution of services. Groves added that she hopes the Berkeley Drop In Center will be given a position to directly help clients instead of only being able to refer them to the hub.

“Sometimes people get matched for five different housing (options), and they’re hard to find,” Grove said. “This holds up potential housing opportunities. … There must be a more efficient way to adequately serve the homeless population — I think that the hub recognizes those issues as well.”

According to Mike Zint, co-founder of the homeless activist group First They Came for the Homeless, drug and mental health rehabilitation are “almost nonexistent” through the hub.

The hub gets “lots” of complaints from homeless community members, according to Zint. He added that the city needs to listen to its homeless population.

“The hub attempts to provide services,” Zint said. “I say ‘attempts’ because there is little housing, and all the homeless are competing for what’s available.”

One such resource is the Pathways STAIR Navigation Center that opened its doors in June 2018 and offers services for up to 45 people at a time. The center is run by Bay Area Community Services through Berkeley city funds.

On-site services at the center include peer counselors with experience as formerly homeless people; the peer counselors assess entering clients and create personalized plans for rehabilitation. Almanza added that the center offers skill-building so that clients have the skills necessary to succeed once they leave to permanent housing.

“The Pathways center is a rapid-rehousing program for individuals in Berkeley for the homeless,” said Bay Area Community Services Executive Director Jamie Almanza. “Once they leave, we get to make sure that … they still stay in their permanent housing.”

According to Almanza, the center works in three stages: outreach, on-site services and aftercare services. Almanza added that since the center’s opening, it has served more than 100 people and has permanently housed more than 70 percent of its clients.

The center’s outreach team is in charge of going into encampments and into the community, according to Almanza. She added that the center also partners with the CES to assist people with priority status.

“I really believe housing is a human right, and I have dedicated my career to helping people that need support,” Almanza said. “Whether you live with a mental illness, addiction and all of the systematic things that contribute to homelessness, you have to have a roof over your head if you want to contribute to society.”

Contact Clara Rodas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ClaraRodas10.