With the prevailing health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety and cleanliness of the unhoused community nestled within People’s Park have remained a critical concern for various entities aiming to support it.
In an attempt to address this concern, the city of Berkeley, UC Berkeley, student groups and local community organizations have conducted outreach efforts that place resources straight into the hands of those residing in the historic park as well as maintain the facilities available to them.
To People’s Park resident Norman Lewis, their work has paid off.
“The different groups helping us have answered the call, and I mean that in the sense that they’ve done the best that they can in the means that they could do it under,” Lewis said. “They can’t be here 24/7, but it seems like they are really trying their best to make sure things are clean and that we have the things we need to stay safe.”
Lewis said he regularly sees local community groups, student groups and churches visit the park to provide “plenty” of masks and hand sanitizer. Such outreach efforts began during the height of the pandemic, Lewis said, adding that the groups would often visit the park multiple times a day to hand out supplies.
Masks and hand sanitizer are also distributed by the People’s Park Outreach staff, which receives COVID-19 supplies directly from the city, according to Joshua Jacobs, Berkeley’s homelessness services coordinator.
UC Berkeley Homeless Outreach Coordinator Ari Neulight, who provides resources to the park based on feedback he collects from its residents, said masks have been one of the most sought-after items. However, Neulight said demands are also starting to shift away from COVID-19 supplies.
“There seem to be fewer conversations around COVID now,” Neulight said. “I have been seeing less and less requests for some of the same items related to COVID that there was a higher request for during the peak of the pandemic.”
Among the other in-demand items of the unhoused community in People’s Park are personal hygiene products, including deodorant, razors and toothbrushes, according to Neulight, who continues to partner with various community organizations.
For instance, he works with Dorothy Day House, a nonprofit organization that serves Berkeley’s unhoused community, to provide hygiene products and food to the park each week.
Neulight said he also coordinates outreach efforts with Lifelong Medical Care’s Street Medicine Team to provide hygiene products and “general health-related support” to those living in People’s Park.
“I have tried to hear out what some of the needs around hygiene are and partner with folks to provide support,” Neulight said. “It’s really important to me that I make sure to get those things that the people in the park need, and that I distribute them.”
Despite extensive outreach efforts to People’s Park, the conditions of the bathroom facilities within the park remains an issue of debate.
Maxina Ventura, a member of the People’s Park Council, alleged the park’s bathrooms remain in “very poor” condition.
Ventura said campus and the city are responsible for ensuring the bathrooms are clean and functioning. However, she alleged both have failed to properly maintain the bathroom facilities in the park.
“Most often, there’s been no soap, the water is off, the electric hand dryers aren’t working and very often, the toilet paper and paper towels are not restocked,” Ventura said. “These are basic maintenance needs that (campus and the city) should have been addressing but didn’t.”
According to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, however, campus currently provides cleaning and maintenance services twice a day, seven days a week.
Supplies in the facilities, including toilet paper and soap, are restocked each time the bathrooms are cleaned, Mogulof noted.
“Our commitment is to provide space that is as clean as possible,” Mogulof said in an email, adding that the dedication of the maintenance and facilities workers who clean the bathrooms in the park “is beyond reproach.”
He also noted that campus has not received any complaints about running water or hand dryers not functioning properly in the bathrooms. Upon receiving such complaints, campus would “promptly dispatch” one of its maintenance crews to repair any malfunctioning services, according to Mogulof.
Lewis echoed Mogulof’s sentiment about the conditions of the bathrooms, noting that he sees them get cleaned on a “regular basis.”
“The staff that takes care of the bathrooms can’t be here all the time, so it’s expected that they get messy at times,” Lewis said. “There are minor issues with the bathroom, but I do believe that those that are responsible for the bathrooms here have actually done excellent.”