Unhoused individuals in Berkeley face challenges during winter season

photo of a tent
Anthony Angel Pérez/Senior Staff
Due to the upcoming winter season, unhoused residents of Berkeley face challenges and fears relating to seasonal issues and potential disease risks.

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With December around the corner and pandemic capacity restrictions still in place at Berkeley shelters, unhoused individuals in Berkeley face choices about how to best reduce their exposure to both the weather elements and disease.

Winter usually leads to increases in food and warm clothing donations and a slight increase in shelter capacity, but it also presents Berkeley’s unhoused community with additional challenges, including colder temperatures, flooding in streets and parks and the fear of exposure to disease indoors.

“There’s lots of food support,” said Ari Neulight, outreach coordinator at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

Neulight noted the holiday season usually leads to more meal supplies, but this does not necessarily mean individuals are having their food needs met.

In addition to food, houseless individuals have been provided with winter-specific material needs, including blankets, tarps and winter clothing items like hats, gloves, thermals, hand warmers, socks and ponchos, Neulight said. Some nonprofit organizations have also been able to provide tents.

“There’s been challenges with making sure folks are safe and well,” Neulight said.

To expand winter capacity, the shelter at the Old City Hall building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way opened Monday for the winter season, Neulight added.

Prior to the pandemic, the Old City Hall opened as a drop-in winter shelter between Thanksgiving and April for individuals seeking relief from the weather elements, according to Neulight. Its opening would be triggered by weather and temperature thresholds.

Neulight stated the shelter changed its winter operations to 24/7 services last year in response to the pandemic. This winter, it will operate 24/7 with the capacity for 19 people and additional case management services.

Though this model provides more services, it leaves out individuals seeking temporary shelter from storms, Neulight said.

According to Maxina Ventura, a member of the People’s Park Council, the residents of People’s Park may need to balance exposure to weather elements with the potential for greater exposure to illness indoors.

“They are outside. There’s airflow. There’s also a lot of sun,” Ventura said. “As long as tents remain as an option, the park residents in some ways could be facing a less dangerous situation.”

The onset of storms, such as the atmospheric river that brought historic rains to the Bay Area in late October, also increases the chance of flooding.

The October storm led to flooding at People’s Park, particularly in the east end where the UC Berkeley removed trees in 2018 and 2019, according to Ventura.

Streets also flooded, leaving many with damaged belongings, Ventura said.

“Storm drains all over the city were overwhelmed and encampments all over the place were overwhelmed,” Ventura said. “It’s a treacherous situation.”

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