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Survey aims to detail needs of homeless

By Daniela Mohor
Thursday August 02, 2001

As part of its struggle to protect homeless people’s civil rights, the nonprofit organization Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency is doing a survey of the needs of Berkeley’s homeless individuals. 

The survey, which began in June and should be done by September is part of the BOSS effort to decriminalize homelessness in Berkeley and to address the lack of services for homeless people. 

“We are conducting the survey for two purposes,” said BOSS director boona cheema. “To have a sense of what the needs continue to be and to be able to go to the city with documentation around the entire issue of the interactions between the police and homeless individuals.” 

The survey, cheema said, is directly linked to the Homeless Human and Civil Rights Resolution approved by the City Council in April. In addition to declaring a moratorium on the enforcement of legislation forbidding homeless people to sleep outdoors, the resolution recommended funding for detox, daytime respite care, rainy day vouchers and storage units. The council approved the first part of the resolution, but included no funding for the program in its 2001-2002 budget.  

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he thinks funding might be found in the mid-year adjusted budget or through a state grant. 

This survey aims at helping the city document the need for these services. 

BOSS plans to survey about 120 people by the end of summer. The study is done through one-on-one interviews that focus on issues such as access to shelters, employment, and health care. The survey, cheema said, is conducted on food lines, in shelters and on the streets all around Berkeley. 

BOSS plans to have a full report ready by the time the City Council comes back from its summer recess in September. Nevertheless, the organization already submitted preliminary findings at the last City Council meeting on July 24. 

Eighteen individuals had been surveyed. Their ages ranged from 20 to 53. A large number of them were white males. The preliminary findings showed that one-third of those polled have some kind of physical disability and/or alcohol or drug use problem. Three-quarters of them reported mental illness. 

The preliminary findings also indicated that all the interviewees would use a legal campground if available and that two-thirds of them had no safe storage space for their possessions. Finally, 11 of the 18 respondents reported they had no safe place to sleep and that they had been awaken at least once by police during the month preceding the interview. 

Although the survey doesn’t reveal anything really new about the homeless community, cheema said it brings a new insight into some of the challenges homeless individuals face. 

“The issue of sleep deprivation and what it does to people, that’s a connection that nobody had made before,” she said. “We’ve always said that homeless people’s behavior is related to mental illness or drug and alcohol use.” 

Worthington, who sponsored the resolution, praised BOSS’ initiative for giving a voice to the homeless community. 

“There is a lot to be learned from listening from the people who are homeless themselves,” he said. 

The BOSS Survey is not the only study on homeless needs conducted in Berkeley. In 1997 the Housing Department issued a report on homelessness after polling nearly 200 homeless individuals. And Alameda County is currently gathering information on homeless people who use shelters, transitional housing and drop-in centers. 

Tim Stroshane a senior planner in Berkeley’s Housing Department and the chair of Alameda County’s Data Collection and Management Committee, said that the county is also trying to assess the needs of those homeless who stay away from services. 

“The data collection and management committee is studying ways of doing a regular street level estimation of homeless people who prefer not to use services,” he said. Thereby, he added, service-providers will better know how to meet the specific needs of these people. 

From those findings, BOSS concludes that the homeless desperately need a detoxification center, more storage units, rainy day vouchers, and daytime respite care.