Activists claim Berkeley lacks emergency preparedness for homeless population

Amanda Ramirez/File

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As another potentially devastating wildfire season looms over the Bay Area, the Berkeley homeless population remains uncertain of what services will be offered to them.

While there are city emergency preparation efforts and ongoing renovations for prospective shelters in the works, volunteers and homeless activists said there is still a lack of communication between the city and the community.

Current preparations

According to Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, the city will convert seven senior and community centers across Berkeley into shelters in case of a disaster. He added each site will provide multifaceted services to those in need, including “overnight sheltering, consolidated post-disaster services, food distribution, or bulk supply distribution.”

Elgstrand said in an email that the shelters will provide services both to those who are already homeless —as well as those who become homeless or stranded in the event of a disaster.

“There are currently 1,108 homeless people in Berkeley, but we know that a major emergency will result in many people losing their homes,” Elgstrand said in the email. “If a magnitude 6.9 earthquake strikes on the Hayward Fault, we anticipate 3,000-12,000 households will be displaced, with 1,000-4,000 households needing temporary shelter from the City.”

The buildings that will serve as emergency shelters are the North and South Berkeley Senior Centers, the Frances Albrier Community Center, Grove Recreation Center, James Kenney and Live Oak Community Centers, as well as the West Berkeley Service Center.

Currently, four out of the seven sites are in the process of or already have been retrofitted, according to Elgstrand. The projects are financed in part by the 2016 Measure T1 infrastructure bond.

Lack of communication

Berkeley Drop-in Center, or BDIC, program director Alejandro Soto-Vigil said the BDIC has not received any information from the city regarding how best to serve its homeless clients in case of a natural disaster.

“We haven’t been told by the city at all if there’s any sort of master plan for homeless folks,” Soto-Vigil said. “I serve on the rent stabilization board as well, and we’ve been dealing with disaster preparedness since I’ve gone on the board. … Now that I work here at a homeless service agency, we’ve never been told what to tell folks who are homeless what to do if there’s a natural disaster.”

Soto-Vigil and Leslie Berkler, Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center executive director, agreed that their organizations would open to shelter people affected by a disaster.

Berkler and BDIC housing coordinator Ruby Butler both said members of their respective organizations bought masks out of pocket to hand out due to poor air quality from last year’s wildfires.

Berkler said natural disasters such as wildfires are especially hard on the homeless population.

“One of the problems with being homeless is that you don’t have any protection from the air,” Berkler said. “We see about 40 clients per day. I know that all the clients we regularly see were having health impacts due to the poor oxygen.”

She added that besides the Berkeley Public Library, there are not many places homeless people are welcome to go during the day.

Mike Zint, founder of First They Came for the Homeless, said he has not heard of any resources that might be available to the homeless community in the event of a disaster. During the wildfire smoke last year, he said the only city response he observed was giving out masks.

Zint said he’s “not optimistic” about resources going to the homeless community during an emergency. He added that “lung issues” are common on the street and that an effective city response would be to get those experiencing the worst health symptoms inside.

Berkeley Fire Department public information officer Keith May also said in an email that the city is in the process of creating a policy to hand out masks to the public.

“There needs to be clear guidance on what the public can expect from a shelter,” May said in the email. “This is even true with handing out masks. Masks have to be fitted for each individual and there are currently no masks available that fit children.”

Zint said the city also needs to find an effective way to communicate information to the homeless population in a disaster — many do not have access to radios or TVs.

Butler said the city could help the BDIC and its clients by generating necessary supplies, releasing a master list of where resources and safe havens can be found, and providing basic disaster-preparedness training for the community.

May said in the email that the city’s Office of Emergency Services does not include an emergency preparedness plan targeted for homeless individuals as the office does not “distinguish between any socio-economic classes,” but rather includes the entire community.

May added that sheltering from smoke in the Bay Area poses unique challenges because most buildings lack proper heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems. According to May, while the buildings planned to be used as shelters do not have updated HVAC systems, such renovations are currently being discussed.

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.