Berkeley homeless community faces reduced resource access amid COVID-19 pandemic

Homeless Shelter
Alexandra Nobida/File

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Access to legal, occupational and support resources for Berkeley’s homeless community has become more scarce since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While several organizations providing these resources have remained open throughout the pandemic, limited access to these services are a result of reduced in-person presence. Other organizations have closed outright to meet California’s shelter-in-place orders.

The Homeless Action Center, or HAC, with locations on Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue and Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue, is one of the few legal centers in the Bay Area that provides legal services to chronically homeless individuals, “overwhelmingly” poor individuals, those with disabilities, ill individuals and marginalized individuals, according to the HAC website.

According to HAC managing attorney Heather Freinkel, HAC generally provides benefit application services such as food stamps and social security, along with long-term representations including appeals. The COVID-19 pandemic, Freinkel added, has forced many of the HAC’s services online, which negatively impacts clients who do not have access to computers, mobile phones or places to charge their devices.

“More than ever, we need to realize that we are only as cared for as well as the least cared for in society,” Freinkel said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homeless encampments and shelters should remain open unless otherwise determined by homeless service providers, health departments and housing authorities that these shelters must close.

The city of Oakland said it will refrain from displacing people experiencing homelessness, including those who live in their vehicles, Freinkel added. In a town hall meeting Saturday, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said the city of Berkeley will also be following these CDC guidelines.

Downtown Streets Team is an organization in Berkeley that enlists volunteers who have experienced homelessness to engage in community beautification, such as cleaning streets. According to Julia Lang, the East Bay director of Downtown Streets Team, its community beautification projects have been put on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We cannot wait to get out there and serve our community. It gives us a purpose by playing this awesome role in the community for everyone that walks through the streets of Berkeley,” Lang said. “We all need that sense of belonging.”

Berkeley Drop-In Center, one of Berkeley’s several daytime homeless drop-in services, is managed by Alameda County Network of Mental Health Clients. According to Katrina Killian, the network’s executive director, the services the Berkeley Drop-In Center provides include access to food, water, mail pickup and other resources that help clients access housing.

Killian added that while access to resources is already restricted when someone is experiencing homelessness, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made access to those resources more scarce, whether that be access to a public restroom or access to health care. This may also be exacerbated, according to Killian, by an increase in the homeless population, as even people who had jobs and housing before the COVID-19 pandemic may be at risk of losing their housing because they are no longer working.

“People are not getting evicted today, but that doesn’t mean we are not going to see a flood of eviction processes in the next 30 days,” Killian said. “We’re going to see an increase in homeless, and it’s going to be directly due to people’s inability to pay the inflated rents in the Bay Area.”

Contact Eric Rogers at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @eric_rogers_dc.