‘Far from enough’: COVID-19 impacts local unhoused communities

Photo of unhoused settlement
William Webster/Staff
Berkeley's homeless population has faced several issues amid the COIVD-19 pandemic. In response, the city and local organizations have made attempts to support the population throughout the past year.

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On the edge of West Berkeley, dozens of tents and vehicles can be seen congregating on Second Street as members of the unhoused community wait to be admitted to homeless shelters at full capacity.

Amid various implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, a single mother and her child resided in the basement of another family’s house in North Berkeley, struggling to make ends meet during the decline of the local and national economy.

With the enforcement of health protocols, an individual in South Berkeley found himself spending most evenings sleeping on the sidewalk facing the impossibility of following shelter-in-place orders.

These instances only encompass a fraction of the realities of Berkeley’s unhoused population during the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many new challenges to those experiencing homelessness and exacerbated existing ones,” said Calleene Egan, executive director of Berkeley Food and Housing Project, or BFHP, in an email.

In addition to the increased difficulty of accessing shelter, unhoused individuals and families have been impacted by issues such as an incomplete census due to a delay in Berkeley’s point-in-time, or PIT, count, exclusion from certain programs and a scarcity of basic necessities and resources.

Facing these challenges, the city of Berkeley and local social service organizations have attempted to bolster their support for the unhoused population throughout the past year.

The city’s efforts to support the unhoused population

Since the onset of the pandemic, Berkeley has pursued several efforts to support the unhoused population, according to acting city spokesperson Rebecca Schneider.

To provide shelter for vulnerable unhoused individuals to isolate, Schneider said, the city established Project Safer Ground — a program funded by Alameda County that provides temporary shelter at two hotels in Berkeley. Additional isolation shelter is provided through the Berkeley Respite Program, which offers housing in 18 RVs and a house located in West Berkeley.

Both programs are operated by BFHP and include services such as employment assistance, food and housing support and case management services, according to Egan.

“We have already found permanent housing for over 100 individuals through these programs, and we are committed to ensuring that as these programs wind down with the pandemic, that everyone has a housing plan, and no one is released to the streets,” Egan said in the email.

The city also reopened many Berkeley homeless shelters and extended their hours to 24/7 during the pandemic, according to Schneider. The extension has allowed individuals to shelter in place consistently and safely, contrasting against pre-pandemic operations where shelters only operated overnight.

For shelters managed by BFHP, such as the Dwight Way Shelter, the extension of hours resulted in strains to BFHP’s budget because it required an increase in staffing, according to Egan.

Under the guidance of the city, Egan added, BFHP shelters had to implement COVID-19 protocols such as supplying staff and clients with necessary personal protective equipment, requiring daily screening and temperature checks and installing dividers between desks and shelter beds to contain airflow.

“We had to act quickly to mitigate the spread of the virus to this vulnerable population,” Egan said in the email.

Potential drawbacks to city efforts

Yesica Prado, former vice chair of the Homeless Services Panel of Experts, said she believes the city’s efforts to support unhoused individuals during the pandemic are still “far from enough.”

Additionally, Prado noted limitations in the city’s efforts, alleging that a large number of individuals who received aid from the city are “back on the streets.”

Despite the extension of homeless shelter hours, for example, Prado said COVID-19 protocols limit shelters to providing a maximum of 40 beds.

Shelters are often at capacity as a result, increasing the number of individuals camping in tents and vehicles on the streets — a reality for John Holder, who has been unhoused in Berkeley since 2019.

Holder said he has been forced to alternate between camping in a park in Downtown Berkeley and sleeping at day shelters in neighboring cities, which has made him particularly “exposed” to the virus.

“It’s so much harder to access homeless shelters now,” Holder said. “Some are still closed or just can’t admit me.”

Prado added that the isolation shelters provided through the Safer Ground and Berkeley Respite programs are temporary and mainly offered to unhoused individuals with underlying medical conditions or symptoms of COVID-19.

Both programs leave many more unhoused individuals unaccounted for and serve as short-term solutions, Prado alleged.

Prado also urged the city to increase its outreach dedicated to providing information on COVID-19 vaccines to unhoused individuals, who often rely on learning information through word of mouth. She noted that the lack of information has left many reluctant to get vaccinated.

“The city needs to send people to actually come and talk to the unhoused about vaccines and help them grasp the right idea about it,” Prado said. “People just want to know more about what it does and if it’s safe.”

A delay in the PIT count

One of the factors affecting the city’s support efforts during the pandemic is the absence of Alameda County’s PIT count this year, according to Prado.

Every two years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, requires communities around the country to conduct counts of their unhoused populations. With the cancellation of the city’s 2021 PIT count, the only recent data on the unhoused community in Berkeley is from the 2019 PIT count.

Schneider said the decision to cancel the PIT count was made by Alameda County in partnership with an advisory committee of outreach service providers, youth service providers and formerly unhoused individuals.

“With the surge in infections during the winter, the risk to volunteers and members of the unhoused community was too high to justify doing the count,” Schneider said in an email. “This is not expected to impact assistance and funding for unhoused individuals and families.”

Prado, however, emphasized that the lack of a PIT count is detrimental to the unhoused population.

Without data that accounts for the impact of the pandemic on the unhoused community, according to Prado, there cannot be an accurate assessment of the number of resources and funding needed during this time.

“We don’t have a full picture of what’s going on and aren’t prepared to accommodate everyone during the pandemic,” Prado said.

Echoing Prado, Leslie Berkler, executive director of the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center, said significantly more people have lost their homes during the pandemic and may not receive support without the count.

Berkler added that there is a “larger and long-standing” issue regarding PIT counts.

She noted that because the city and HUD’s definition of homelessness determines who gets counted, PIT counts are unrepresentative of the entire unhoused population.

“Families, in particular, have been historically undercounted because they often don’t fit into what’s defined as homeless,” Berkler said.

Supporting families, a “historically undercounted” population

Berkeley’s homeless services are prioritized for those who meet HUD’s definition of homelessness: an individual or family that lacks a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” according to the email from Schneider.

The definition includes those who have resided in an emergency shelter or are exiting an institution that they have resided in for 90 days or less, Schneider added. Those who have a primary nighttime residence that is not meant for human habitation or temporary living arrangements in transitional housing, hotels and motels are included as well.

Anthony Carrasco, who formerly served on the Homeless Services Panel of Experts, said the definition excludes many families.

“A family living in one room or doubling up and living in another family’s basement, living room or garage don’t count as homeless, according to HUD’s definition,” Carrasco said. “These families need to be taken into account by the city because right now, there’s little federal funding or resources dedicated to them.”

Carrasco added that households with more than one family face a higher risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

The pandemic has also made it harder for unhoused families to access necessities. According to Berkler, there has been a substantial increase in the number of families coming to the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center for groceries and diapers.

“Many parents have lost their jobs or work less hours to take care of their children, so they have less income to spend on essential items,” Berkler said. “The center has been doing its best to support unhoused families with this and other issues they face.”

Within the last year, the center has distributed approximately 8,500 meals, 1,500 diapers and 7,000 hygiene products including soaps, shampoos, masks and hand sanitizer to unhoused families and individuals — increasing food distribution by 78% and hygiene product distribution by 301% — according to Berkler.

The center also offers emergency grants for families who need help obtaining or retaining housing and case management and referral services, Berkler added.

“It is unlikely that the pandemic will go away in the next six months, so we hope we can continue to support our unhoused families and individuals even as the county opens up,” Berkler said.

Expanding outreach and continuing to provide homeless services during the pandemic

In addition to the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center, other social service organizations in Berkeley have reopened during the pandemic to offer their resources to the unhoused population.

The Berkeley Drop-In Center, for example, is a multipurpose community center for unhoused and mental health clients that reopened last June, according to John Holloway, a drug counselor and resource specialist at the center.

“We are gradually returning to normal to support the unhoused,” Holloway said. “It’s even harder for them during the pandemic, which is why it’s important for us to be accessible to them.”

At the center, Holloway said, individuals can continue to access housing advocacy and referrals, payee representative services and drop-in services such as lockers, mail services and refreshments. The center also implemented a computer access service by appointment, which allows individuals to search for jobs and fill out supplemental security income applications.

Holloway added that the center’s current outreach to local parks and encampments is “crucial,” noting that resources such as food, hygiene kits and informational flyers about the center are distributed to these areas.

“There are a ton of resources and places like our center where the unhoused can get the help they need, especially during COVID,” Holloway said, “But most of them don’t know about what’s available to them, which is a lot of what our outreach is about.”

Resource distribution is also a focus of the Suitcase Clinic, a student volunteer organization that offers free health and social services to underserved populations in Berkeley, according to Suitcase Clinic Executive Director Brandy Hoang.

Working with the Berkeley Outreach Coalition, some members of the clinic continue to distribute resources to the unhoused population around Telegraph Avenue, People’s Park and Downtown Berkeley twice a week.

While the clinic is currently not operating in person, Hoang added that the center and the Berkeley Outreach Coalition provide tents, food, solar chargers and medical and hygiene supplies to approximately 10 homeless encampments twice a month.

Despite new challenges and pandemic-related issues remaining, Prado said outreach and support from organizations have significantly helped in mitigating these issues.

“The most important thing right now is camaraderie,” Prado said. “And from the beginning, so many community organizations have shown that to the unhoused.”

Annika Kim Constantino is a schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaKimC.