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‘Treated like criminals’: Concerns raised about services for unhoused people

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Despite the millions of dollars that are allocated to programs that support the unhoused population, unhoused individuals often receive inadequate and unfair treatment from service providers, according to Andrea Henson, attorney in the East Bay.


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NOVEMBER 08, 2022

Although the city of Berkeley has benefited from state-supported programs and local policies that aim to tackle houselessness, community members have been pushing for alternative and more substantial approaches.

Despite the millions of dollars that are allocated to programs that support the unhoused population, unhoused individuals often receive inadequate and unfair treatment from service providers, according to Andrea Henson, attorney in the East Bay. Henson, who is also the board chair of Where Do We Go? Berkeley, or WDWG, pointed to its May report, which detailed numerous allegations made by program participants between September 2021 and April 2022 at the Rodeway Inn, a shelter managed by Abode Services a housing and services provider —  under Project Roomkey.

The report alleged issues such as a lack of privacy, poor quality of food, an unfair curfew and an inadequate grievance policy, among other things.

Responding to the allegations of the report, Abode Services vice president of community relations Bronwyn Hogan said that the organization determined the report did not contain any verifiable issues that warranted further investigation. Hogan added that if future information is deemed credible, Abode Services will “thoroughly” investigate and resolve the issue.

However, Peter Radu, assistant to the city manager, said when the city assumed the Rodeway Inn contract, it took the allegations “seriously,” noting the shelter updated its curfew, changed its food provider and began to fund the shelter through the state’s Encampment Resolution Funding program.

Though Radu said every agency the city contracts with has a grievance policy, Henson maintained that unhoused individuals still find it difficult to file grievances against workers within shelters. She added that if an unhoused person is treated unfairly by service providers, the only recourse is for them to complain to the providers themselves, which jeopardizes their housing opportunities.

Paul Boden, who became unhoused at age 16 and now serves as the executive director of Western Regional Advocacy Project — a houselessness advocacy organization — emphasized the impact that this power dynamic can have on shelter residents.

“Staff are burned out, overwhelmed and underpaid,” Boden said. “You need to have a process that balances the power dynamics of ‘I’m staff and you’re a client so I dictate if you have a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head,’ and ‘If I don’t like you, if you piss me off, if you dare talk back to me, I’m putting your ass out in the streets.’ ”

Instead of providing meaningful outreach such as helping them fill out forms and directing them to mental health resources, service providers are just “condemning and criticizing” the unhoused population, Henson noted. Unhoused individuals are disproportionately affected by physical disabilities and mental health issues, she added.

Henson questioned the effectiveness of outreach, alleging that unhoused individuals are often “treated like criminals” by service providers, which exacerbates the cycle of poverty and violence.

“It says a lot when people are willing to live in horrible conditions rather than go inside,” Henson said. “Why don’t they want to go inside? What is scaring them? Maybe there are reasons why people are terrified to go inside and terrified to go to service providers.”

Anthony Carrasco, a doctoral student at Berkeley Law, agreed with Henson’s sentiments, claiming that long-term and permanent solutions have not been funded.

In this way, he said, outreach by service providers is “abysmal” because of the lack of permanent resources.

“What are they reaching out to them for? To see if they’re still homeless?” Carrasco asked. “They don’t have any permanent resources to give them — at least, not any resources that will help them in a meaningful way.”

WDWG’s report reflects both Carrasco’s own and others’ experiences with services for the unhoused, he noted.

Carrasco said shelters are inherently “unethical” because shelter residents lack privacy, autonomy and other basic human freedoms.

Carrasco emphasized that residents don’t have a legitimate right to due process or privacy within or outside the shelter. The unhoused are sheltered on the basis of contracts which are “legally unconscionable.”

“People are entitled to not be treated as objects,” Carrasco said. “(But) we treat them like they’re not people, we pick them up and we move them around like books on a shelf.”

Accessing mental health services 

Berkeley’s houseless services and other city services throughout the country are also not dealing adequately with unhoused people who suffer from severe mental illness, according to Steven Segal, professor of campus’s school of social welfare and director of the Mental Health and Social Welfare Research Group.

Segal said at least 30% of unhoused individuals suffer from a “major” mental health disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. If one adds post traumatic stress disorder, that number is 50%. It is 80% when one takes substance abuse into account.

Segal explained that when the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was passed, reforms were implemented in state psychiatric hospitals in which those suffering from severe mental health illness were cared for by community care facilities. He added the state Department of Mental Health’s Bureau of Social Work also worked closely with individuals to help them with severe mental health illnesses.

However, with the shift of mental health service responsibility to counties and the elimination of the bureau, it eventually became illegal for hospitals to share information with local mental health centers, Segal said. He added that this resulted in a “disjointed” system in which cities such as Berkeley are unable to assist the needs of people with long-term severe mental disorders.

With the increased focus on individual freedom, there has been a “tremendous” shift involving the elimination of state psychiatric hospitals. This has made it impossible to get or keep people with severe mental illness under care through the duration of their mental illness episodes, he added.

Segal said today, when the police are called on an unhoused individual suffering from severe mental illness, the individual may end up in a psychiatric emergency room. Because there aren’t enough psychiatric beds for all those who need them, though, they end up back on the streets, even if they are a danger to themselves.

The jail has become the new psychiatric hospital, Segal said, noting that the largest psychiatric hospital in the state of California is the Los Angeles County Jail.

“There are few long-term psychiatric beds and as a consequence, people with severe mental illness end up on the streets,” Segal said. “If we had more supportive housing, if we had more case managers who are ready to go out to the streets to work with these individuals, we would have much more success.”

Segal recommended the funding of psychiatric care and the creation of a department of mental health at the state level in order to provide more comprehensive care for those who need long-term assistance.

Segal also advocated for involuntary care for those who need it, and supports the full implementation of assisted outpatient treatment, also known as Laura’s Law in California. Segal noted his support for the full implementation of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019 mental health conservatorship law, which awards guardians the right to supervise on the basis that they are protecting the person’s health and safety.

Supportive housing within residential settings where people live in group care with associated mental health case management is also something Segal supports.

“If you look at most of the systems in the United States, you will find that they are not dealing adequately with people with severe mental illness, especially for those who are homeless,” Segal said. “This is a problem that extends beyond Berkeley.”

Recent local measures to tackle houselessness

Houselessness continues to rise in the region, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson. However, Robinson added, state funding for Projects Roomkey and Homekey has allowed cities to invest in noncongregate shelter options where each individual has a living space that offers some level of privacy.

This is particularly notable in light of a recent study conducted by UC Berkeley and UCSF researchers, which found that providing houseless individuals with private rooms reduces the average number of emergency service requests as opposed to those without private shelter.

While the study did not directly take into account group shelter service versus private room shelters such as the Rodeway Inn, it demonstrates a correlation between privacy and positive outcomes for individuals.

Robinson added that the recent decline in Berkeley’s houseless population even as houselessness has risen in the region is one indication that the work the city is doing is making a difference.

“When you are able to meet all of someone’s basic needs, and offer them the dignity and security of a private room, it becomes that much more possible to take the next steps in the journey to a permanent home,” Robinson said in an email. “Right now, we are leasing the Rodeway Inn on University Avenue for 18 months to provide housing and services to residents of People’s Park.”

Robinson noted that to end houselessness, there needs to be greater regional investment in permanent housing subsidies and the construction of affordable housing.

Measure L of this November’s ballot raises $200 million for new affordable housing, Robinson said, adding that the measure is “critical” to making progress in reducing houselessness in the city. However, Robinson said the city must also change their perspectives on those they are housing.

“As we do the immediate work of sheltering the unhoused and the long-term work of building new affordable housing, we must also resist against efforts to criminalize the homeless for living on the streets,” Robinson said in the email.

Contact Victor Corona at 


NOVEMBER 08, 2022