Berkeley City Council plans to address houselessness, poor mental health

Photo of an unhoused encampment
Anthony Angel Pérez/Senior Staff
With goals of addressing both mental health concerns and the houseless population, the Berkeley City Council discussed various support measures.

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Berkeley City Council members sought to define the intersection of houselessness and mental illness in order to develop an action plan to address both at a work session Tuesday.

Rates of mental illness are relatively high among the unhoused population in Berkeley, according to assistant to the city manager Peter Radu. In a presentation, Radu cited 2019 data that found that 42% of Berkeley’s unhoused population self-reported having a “psychiatric or emotional condition.” In contrast, only 21% of the national adult population had a mental illness the same year, Radu said.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín acknowledged that the population of unhoused people has increased during the pandemic. He added that COVID-19 protocols also led to compression of existing shelters’ possible occupancy rates to accommodate for social distancing. During the meeting, Arreguín encouraged state-level advocacy for greater resources to improve the city’s mental health services.

“Right now, it’s not working,” Arreguín said. “That’s the reality. Berkeley can’t do it alone, but we have to do something.”

During his presentation, Radu noted that housing scarcity and inequity routinely push people of color out of the Bay Area housing market. Radu also described a “Bermuda Triangle” in which those experiencing houselessness can become trapped. He said the triangle is composed of three corners. The first corner is a lack of shelter and mental health services, the second is a lack of long-term care options and the third being systemic criminalization of narcotics crimes.

Radu voiced support for Berkeley’s existing houseless response team, which aims to “resolve encampments” by focusing on outreach and service engagement. However, several residents voiced concerns about the team during public comment. Residents Elana Auerbach and Alecia Harger alleged that city employees mistreat those experiencing houselessness during evictions. Radu later denied this allegation.

“We need a sobering center and a sanctioned encampment, or else it’s just a hamster wheel of putting people in temporary housing and then they are back on the street,” Auerbach said to the council.

Manager of Housing and Community Services Margot Ernst suggested the city address houselessness and poor mental health by investing in emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing and affordable housing.

Director of Health, Housing and Community Services Dr. Lisa Warhuus echoed Ernst’s comments, as well as Arreguín’s desire for increased state-level advocacy. Warhuus also suggested Berkeley better track and support “the most complex cases in our community,” as well as improve substance use disorder services.

“I feel like we’ve got our arms around the big issue of ‘What can a city do to address homelessness?’ ” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn at the end of the meeting. “If we put the same amount of time, thought, care and money into addressing (poor mental health), I know we are going to have success.”

Rachel Barber is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.