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Berkeley Guides need bigger budget

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday November 21, 2000

The popular Berkeley Guides – a walking, talking resource for anyone who works, shops or hangs out on Shattuck Avenue – will be asking the City Council for more money tonight. 

At the request of Berkeley Guides’ Executive Director Ove Wittstock, Mayor Shirley Dean will ask the City Council to come up with an additional $42,117 in the midyear budget to maintain existing services and augment guide salaries, which the mayor said is inadequate for the current job market. 

Currently, there are five guides whose pay ranges between $11 for a new guide to $14.50 for a senior supervisor with five years experience. 

The Berkeley Guides, which is managed by the Berkeley Police Department, has been funded at $171,000 since the group was founded in 1995, as part of Measure O, which was designed both to clean up Shattuck Avenue and provide more homeless services. Wittstock said the organization has been spending an average of $3,500 over its budget since July. He is also asking for the increase to become permanent part of the group’s annual budget. Guides work Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 3 p.m. to midnight. If additional funding is not approved, Wittstock said hours might be cut and the level of service may suffer. 

The guides walk along Shattuck between University Avenue and Channing Way offering assistance and information to anyone who needs it. Guides check in with merchants on their route to see if everything is OK. They hand out information booklets to the homeless telling them where they can find a hot meal, clothing and shelter. If someone is in a bad state physically or mentally, they will call the Mobil Crisis Unit to come out and do welfare check. If a traffic jam snarls the downtown area, they do what they can to unsnarl it.  

Sgt. Alec Boga said the guides have become indispensable to downtown. “If you want to know what’s going on, the first person you go to is a Berkeley Guide,” Boga said. “They know everything that’s going on down there.” 

The Downtown Berkeley Association, a merchants organization, strongly supports the guides. DBA Executive Director Deborah Badhia said the guides provide a visible presence on the street and they constantly check in with merchants making them aware of crime suspects in the area or current crime trends.  

“They are always very professional and a very effective and compassionate follow up to whatever happening on the street,” she said. 

The guides don’t carry any weapons and have a strict policy of not getting involved in potentially violent situations. If a situation does appear to be going bad they contact the police on portable radios and try and maintain calm until they arrive. 

Dean said the guides have had a good effect on Shattuck.  

“We’ve had problems with aggressive panhandlers and their presence has given people reassurance and had a calming effect,” she said. 

Wittstock said when hiring guides they look for somebody who is mature and has good public relations skills. He said one of the best guides was a 55-year-old woman who had a good rapport with the Berkeley High School kids who hang out on Shattuck Avenue during lunch and after school.  

“She would just talk to then like she was their grandmother and they loved it,” he said.