Berkeley homeless community struggles amid COVID-19, city responds

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The city of Berkeley rolled out a number of resources to help the homeless community navigate challenges associated with being unhoused during the COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, pandemic.

With limited options for sheltering in place or following social distancing directives, Berkeley’s homeless community is particularly vulnerable to contracting the disease. The city’s mobilization of resources is aimed at supporting the community’s ability to stay safe and avoid infection during the ongoing shelter-in-place order.

“The challenges for the homeless with respect to directives to ‘shelter in place’ and ‘wash hands’ are very simple: not having a home to shelter in, or a sink in which to wash one’s hands,” said City Councilmember Sophie Hahn in an email. “That is why the City of Berkeley is working on so many fronts to support and assist the homeless during this second crisis – the first being homelessness itself.”

On Tuesday, 10 trailers from the state were added to the eight already purchased and installed by the city to isolate and care for individuals considered to be especially frail or vulnerable to contracting the disease, according to City Councilmember Rigel Robinson.

The city has worked with all local shelters to modify spaces and implement social distancing protocols for residents, said Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Mayor Jesse Arreguín, in an email.

Training is now underway for 13 employees to staff a 24-hour shelter that is in the works. It is slated to have on-site showers and the capacity to provide 100 meals a day, according to a COVID-19 update on Arreguín’s website.

The city of Berkeley has also coordinated with several organizations to expand efforts to meet the homeless community’s needs. LifeLong Medical Care, Bay Area Community Services and the city’s Homeless Outreach and Treatment Team have come together to organize health services outreach efforts.

“Our outreach is daily and constant,” Hahn said in the email. “Every effort is being made, and every resource at our disposal used to do effective outreach.”

According to Robinson, the Dorothy Day House and the Downtown Berkeley Association, two local nonprofits, have partnered to launch the Double Helping Hands program, which provides meals from local restaurants to members of the homeless population.

The Berkeley Mutual Aid Network, another nonprofit organization, has connected 200 volunteers with people in need, he added.

Despite the city’s efforts, advocates are saying the homeless community is still lacking access to some necessities and have not received everything they need to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Food insecurity is a common challenge for Berkeley’s homeless population and the situation has become increasingly dire since the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, said Andrea Henson, lead organizer with the “Where do we go?” campaign.

Now that a number of organizations the homeless community normally relies on have closed their doors due to the shelter-in-place directive, many have found themselves struggling to access basic necessities such as food and medical services, said Jace Perry, a trainee on the Street Medicine Team at the Berkeley Free Clinic, in an email.

“Normally, organizations and businesses donate food on a regular basis,” Perry said in the email. “But, because of shelter in place, there is now a critical shortage of food donations and even fewer people willing to drop those donations off at encampments.”

The closure of the city’s recycling centers, where many in the homeless community would return cans, has removed a source of income that once allowed them to make money for food and supplies.

Despite the installation of dozens of hand-washing stations and several port-a-potties throughout Berkeley, those living at one of the city’s several encampments still share access to only a single portable restroom, and volunteers have constructed hand-washing stations in areas far from ones installed by the city.

Additionally, the homeless community in Berkeley is usually able to access libraries and community centers where they can charge their phones, Perry added. But now that those city resources have shuttered because of the shelter-in-place order, many are unable to keep their devices charged, which they say makes a big difference in one’s ability to socially isolate.

“We had a client that presented with COVID-19 symptoms who had to call someone into his tent whenever he needed something because he had no other way to communicate his needs to other people at the encampment,” Perry said in the email. “Combined with the lack of handwashing stations and running, potable water, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is impossible to socially distance within the encampments.” 

Members of the Berkeley Outreach Coalition, a collection of local nonprofits that have pooled resources to support their outreach efforts, have had to step in to ensure individuals at the encampments have what they need to avoid the spread of the disease.

The coalition’s efforts have centered around making sure individuals at the encampments have access to hand-washing stations, hygiene products and other things they need to protect themselves. It has, however, largely continued to focus on providing food, clothes and medical services as well.

“While many of our clients are alarmed about COVID-19 and have been taking great precautions, others have expressed difficulty prioritizing these precautions when homelessness itself is an ongoing public health crisis,” said Fritz Bixler, outreach coordinator for the Street Medicine Team, in an email. “For folks already living with serious medical issues, it’s a luxury to worry about contracting a disease in the distant future—when so much of their energy is consumed by the task of daily survival.”

Jacob Souza is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.