Berkeley community brainstorms ideas for project to increase mental health care for homeless people in city

Photo of Berkeley homeless encampments
Ciecie Chen/File
One major priority for the participants at the town hall was bringing services to where homeless people are, including encampments, as many current services are located too far away.

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Berkeley’s future may offer mentally ill homeless people a retreat into nature or access to mental health services in their encampments, according to community input from a town hall held via Zoom on Wednesday.

The city of Berkeley is applying for a three-year state grant to create an “innovation project” designed to increase access to mental health care for mentally ill residents who are experiencing homelessness and have not been reached by current city services. The city’s mental health division partnered with justice-focused consulting firm Resource Development Associates to hold the town hall and collect community members’ ideas for potential projects.

“We need something innovative, new to address homeless needs in order to make improvements to the current system,” said Carole Marasovic, a community activist and candidate for the Rent Stabilization Board, in the Zoom chat. “Whatever we develop will need to be sustained after by the city.”

One major priority for the participants was bringing services to where homeless people are, including encampments, as many current services are located too far away.

According to Andrea Henson, a founding member of the homeless advocacy organization Where Do We Go Berkeley, homeless people face increased challenges with distance because leaving their belongings to go across town could lead to them getting stolen.

Another common proposal at the meeting was finding mental health clinicians who can relate to homeless people. To build trust, the community members suggested developing a consistent schedule with the same clinician per client.

Marasovic, however, said this was already happening and suggested they focus on the “bridge to housing.”

According to Henson, homeless people are often left vulnerable even after they are provided an indoor space to live in because they often lack the means to buy food or the knowledge needed to buy furniture.

“They just have a roof, but it’s going to take more,” Henson said during the meeting. “They end up back out on the street with less.”

Other less clinical approaches were suggested, including a nature retreat. According to People’s Park Committee member Max Ventura, mentally ill homeless people could be provided with transportation to a lake area and given “typical picnic fixings” and outdoor games as a break from the “cement jungle.”

No project plan has been officially decided yet, as the city is only on the second of four project implementation phases. In addition to the town hall, the city will be interviewing and surveying homeless residents in Berkeley to get more input before drafting the plan in November and December.

The public will have another chance to comment on the plan in January and February before it is submitted to the state for approval.

Contact Kate Finman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.