Berkeley shelters continue to operate at reduced pandemic capacity

Photo of Berkeley Food & Housing Project
Jim Xu/Staff
Several shelters in the city, including the Berkeley Food & Housing Project and Bay Area Community Services, are still facing limited capacity and restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As the world enters the second winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Berkeley’s homeless shelters remain at reduced capacity and continue to have pandemic precautions in place, with more people in need of shelter than there are beds available.

Within the capacity and staff constraints imposed by the pandemic, the city and its shelters have continued to provide services while also prioritizing affordable housing and permanent supportive housing options.

“We’re all being pushed to our limits to provide safe shelter for those in need,” said Calleene Egan, executive director of the Berkeley Food & Housing Project, or BFHP, in an email. “And the conditions are particularly challenging during the pandemic.”

Joshua Jacobs, the homelessness services coordinator for the city of Berkeley, said he is not aware of when pandemic capacity restrictions will be lifted.

BFHP shelters, for instance, can only serve half the number of clients they could before the pandemic, Egan said in the email. BFHP shelters are kept open 24/7 instead of closing during the day, which requires more on-site staff at each shelter, Egan added.

Bay Area Community Services, or BACS, which runs shelters and 24-hour residential programs, is also still operating under pandemic capacity restrictions, according to Nora Daly, development director at BACS. BACS is looking to state and local officials to lift restrictions so that it can resume operating at full capacity, Daly said in an email.

“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, many shelters (including ours) had to decompress to allow for safe social distancing, which means each shelter can only serve about half the number of clients they normally would,” Egan said in the email.

Despite pandemic capacity restrictions, however, some Berkeley shelters have continued to provide services to individuals experiencing homelessness.

Egan said in the email BFHP services are still “very robust and comprehensive.” She added that extending the hours of BFHP shelters to 24/7 has made services even “more comprehensive” than they were before.

BACS services have also remained strong despite the restrictions, according to Daly.

“We are actually providing more services to more people – even at reduced site capacity – than we did before COVID,” Daly said in the email.

The city has also tried to address the shortage in shelter beds since pandemic restrictions were first placed.

The city added 50 additional beds at the Horizon Transitional Village on Grayson Street in West Berkeley and 69 through the Safer Ground hotel acquisition program, according to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s website.

In late September, the city also opened a safe recreational vehicle parking program at 742 Grayson St., which accommodates 40 RVs, according to a memo from the City Manager’s Office.

However, Anthony Carrasco, who formerly served on the Homeless Services Panel of Experts, said in an email the increase in shelter beds is “nominal.” He noted that demand for beds has outpaced the supply.

“To understand the meaning of capacity, one must consider the relationship between shelter supply and shelter demand,” Carrasco said in the email. “The ratio of shelter beds to homeless people is worse today than it was before the pandemic.”

In addition to the lack of shelter beds, Egan said in the email that the city is also lacking the capacity for other types of housing. She noted that there “simply are not enough” transitional housing units, permanent supportive housing units or affordable housing at large.

Egan added that the lack of affordable housing is the “primary cause of this homelessness crisis.”

The city has shown interest in prioritizing permanent housing.

At a Nov. 15 meeting, the Berkeley Homeless Commission discussed a budget referral for an outreach coordinator for South Shattuck Avenue. The commission, Jacobs said, agreed that the $200,000 would be better spent on housing.

“Their proposal was to have it go toward housing and show that it’s their priority,” Jacobs said.

Berkeley City Council members have also expressed interest in reallocating some Measure P funds from nonmedical emergency services to permanent supportive housing, Jacobs added.

Permanent housing in the city, however, will likely require outside help, according to Councilmember Sophie Hahn.

“Berkeley can rehouse people,” Hahn said in an email. “We can’t afford to provide a subsidy to them for the rest of their lives. That is a function only a larger government entity can provide.”

Action to address individuals experiencing homelessness has occurred on the state level.

In June, California state legislators approved a budget proposal from California Gov. Gavin Newsom that included $1 billion for local governments to address homelessness.

At a Nov. 4 City Council meeting, Arreguín said such funds are not guaranteed to reach cities such as Berkeley. He still noted that the money should be allocated according to homeless population counts.

Arreguín is referring to the point-in-time count conducted by Alameda County every two years in compliance with a federal mandate. With the cancellation of the city’s 2021 count, the only recent data on the unhoused community in Berkeley is from the 2019 count.

The 2019 count identified 1,108 unhoused individuals, 813 of whom were unsheltered, according to the Berkeley point-in-time count report from that year.

The next count will take place Jan. 25, according to the website of EveryOne Home, an Alameda County organization that serves the unhoused community.

Meanwhile, Daly said existing city services and staff will need to meet the needs of the population.

“The pandemic highlighted a lot of gaps in our social safety net writ large,” Daly said in the email. “So for BACS that meant stepping up to fill those gaps.”

Contact Alexander Wohl at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @dc_arwohl.