Weighing future of youth shelters with resident pushback, City Council moves toward 30 beds

Brandon Yung/Staff

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Berkeley City Council faces a critical crossroads in deciding the future of youth homeless shelters in the city: either lose homeless shelter beds already in short supply or add more adjacent to resistant neighbors.

Berkeley City Council members unanimously voted to move forward with leasing a property for homeless youth at 3404 King Street for 12 shelter beds at its meeting Tuesday. The vote was more a signal toward preserving — as opposed to adding — beds. The city’s only two nonprofits offering shelter for homeless youth, however, said they are set to close their doors — one by the end of 2019 and one by the end of 2020.

Neighbors in the South Berkeley block on King Street said a high crime rate on the block should be enough reason for the city to proceed slower. Pushback against an initial proposal to expand the facility to house 30 beds led council members to approve a plan that would consider final approval later on.

“It’s a calculation when you have a liquor store, the longest standing homeless encampment in Berkeley and those who are engaging in illicit activity at the park across the street. … and so now the community has agitated for changes,” said District 3 City Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who represents the South Berkeley neighborhood.We’re not going to turn away kids, but at the same time we have to do something for these people.”

Covenant House, the nonprofit offering to take over the building, already operates the YEAH! Shelter, a youth-focused 30-bed shelter at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Downtown Berkeley. According to a city staff report, the site will discontinue if an alternative location cannot be sourced by the end of the year. Facing multiyear operations deficits, the Fred Finch Youth Center, which currently provides 12 beds at the contested location on King Street, could shutter by the end of the year.

The city staff report said if a decision is not made by December, Covenant House could lose out on about half a million dollars in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds.

Notified about the incoming closures in June, the city’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department, or HHCS, came up with a proposal to facilitate a property transfer while the council was on summer recess. By the time the item was heard at Tuesday’s meeting, Peter Radu, the homeless services coordinator for the city, took responsibility for the lack of communication between the city, residents and Bartlett.

The proposed solution would have transferred the King Street property from the Fred Finch Youth Center to Covenant House. In order to implement plans for Covenant House’s shelter, the city would need to invoke the shelter crisis ordinance. Taking a more tentative approach, the council voted to direct the city manager to negotiate a lease, which would return to council for final approval.

According to a report from the city manager, Berkeley’s unsheltered homeless population has increased by 22 percent from 2017-19. In light of this statistic, HHCS staff have labeled the situation as “urgent” and recommend waiving the restrictions of the zoning district.

Urging council to “return to the drawing board” with plans to proceed with Covenant House, some residents neighboring the current Fred Finch Youth Center pushed back against an opaque city process and high rates of violence on the block.

Sam Kang, who recently moved into the neighborhood, criticized the city for a lack of outreach regarding plans for the shelter.

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White was not able to comment on the crime rates in the area at the time of publishing.

Beth Henry-Speck, who lives next door to the Fred Finch Youth Center, made a point that has been repeated by Bartlett: South Berkeley is receiving the short end of the stick.

“If we are going to waive zoning, it should be across Berkeley to add more affordable housing, not just in South Berkeley,” Henry-Speck said.

Council members held off on invoking the shelter crisis ordinance, which would allow the YEAH! Shelter to override local zoning for the 30 beds.

While some neighbors pushed to have Covenant House consider other sites, Bill Bedrossian, chief executive officer for Covenant House California, said the search did not yield alternatives.

“In one of the most difficult and expensive real estate markets in the country, there are just not many properties available that anyone can afford in Berkeley, let alone one that can accommodate the living space and support services for 30 youth and staff,” Bedrossian said in an email. “So, to date, there have been no viable options that were affordable or didn’t require us to evict existing residents, which we weren’t willing to do.”

The motion passed by the council moved the needle closer to resident demands to consider alternatives. Amendments made by District 5 City Councilmember Sophie Hahn will require four community outreach meetings and explore whether “transition age youth” services could be offered at other facilities.

Bedrossian, however, said the amended motion “did not get us to where we needed to be, in order to move forward in a timely manner.”

On the way to Orange County to scout prospective youth homeless shelter sites in Anaheim, Bedrossian compared community attitudes with Berkeley.

“Ironically, it is a community who is excited and supportive of us coming in to create a new site to prove services for their youth experiencing homelessness,” Bedrossian said in an email. “Much different than what we experienced last night!”

Carole Marasovic, a member of the city’s Homeless Commission, agreed that youth homelessness is of significant concern. Youth homelessness that goes unaddressed, according to Marasovic, leads to chronic homelessness.

Bay Area resident Dante Cano lives in the Fred Finch Youth Center. According to Cano, who attended the meeting to advocate for the Covenant House, the presence of crime on King Street is a problem — albeit one not caused by the young adult residents currently housed at the youth center.

“The people that live here don’t feel safe with what’s going on. The community has the right to be mad, ’cause we’re mad as well, but they’re taking this issue to represent their problems,” Cano said.

Cano, who juggles two jobs, hopes to move to San Bernardino because of the high cost of living in the Bay Area.

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.