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Agency offers a service doorway for homeless

By John GeluardiDaily Planet staff
Thursday August 09, 2001

To access the Multi-Agency Service Center near downtown, clients walk down a narrow passage next to the Veterans Memorial Building on Center Street until it opens up onto a cloistered, courtyard garden. 

It’s Wednesday morning and about 15 people are in the Solid Ground Courtyard having casual conversations in the mid-morning sun among brightly colored marigolds, daisies and pink cushions. 

Down a flight of stairs from the courtyard, the daytime center is in full swing. Jazz comes from a speaker system, the fresh scent of body lotion is in the air and five MASC staff members are busy providing myriad services to the 90 or so homeless that drop into the center each day since it first opened in 1995. 

Berkeley’s homeless can access a host of services including basic conveniences like showers, voice mail and free bus passes to more intensive services like medical attention, mental health referrals and crisis intervention. 

Some clients, like Reggie Davis, a vendor on Telegraph Avenue, have been coming to the center for years. Others, like 22-year-old Jessica Daniel who just arrived in the area from out of state, go to the center two or three times a week to shower and get cleaned up. 

MASC Coordinator Robert Long jokes with clients as he walks along a row of offices near the respite area, where clients read magazines while waiting to take showers. Long is casually dressed and with his dark sunglasses and ponytail, he is hard to separate from the 30 or so clients in the center. He clearly enjoys talking with the clients and his good-natured cheerfulness appears to lighten the overall mood of the center. 

A few moments later, in a small office off the main room, Long puts his sunglasses on a table and becomes intently serious as he talks about the importance of the services MASC offers and the frustration of not having the resources to offer more.  

“We see this as an entrance point to the system for the homeless and we can’t really deal with addictions, which is one of the causes of homelessness,” Long said. 

During the last round of Community Service Block Grants, which are federal and state grants distributed by the City Council, the Homeless Commission recommended a $30,000 cut in MASC’s grant. According to Jane Micallef, the commission’s secretary, it was because of the center’s failure to hire an addiction counselor. 

“$30,000 had been awarded to the MASC for the previous two years,” Micallef said. “The money was supposed to go the hiring of a counselor who was never hired and the commission recommended that funding not be awarded again.” 

boona cheema, the Executive Director of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, the umbrella organization that oversees MASC and 26 other homeless programs in Alameda County, said the city is saying that to try to justify taking the money from the program. 

cheema said, that in fact, there was a staff person being groomed for the addiction counseling position, but he was also managing a full load of clients and couldn’t focus on establishing the new program. She said once the staff person was prepared to focus on the program he was offered another job with better pay and benefits. 

cheema said the cutback has left MASC understaffed and with an inadequate budget. 

“I have never worked with a group as committed as the staff at the MASC,” she said. “They put in long hours and don’t have time to take a break or chill out a little bit and they are responsible for so many people.” 

MASC is budgeted at $388,000 for fiscal year 2001-02 and cheema said the center is expected to see a shortfall of $50,000. She added that she has already laid off five staff members from other BOSS programs because of unanticipated overhead expenses. 

“This was a very bad time to cut those funds because we were really hurt by high energy costs this year,” she said. “I’ll have to raise that money one way or another.” 

Because of the ongoing shortage of funds for addiction counseling, Long said he has instituted a controversial method of drug and alcohol treatment known as harm reduction.  

The theory is that there a large percentage of addicts who won’t seek any treatment that involves total abstinence and if they instead follow reduction techniques they can reduce harm to themselves and family. 

“We simply try to point out the benefits to quality of life by not drinking or using so much,” he said. 

Long said the hope is that clients will eventually subscribe to abstinence programs. He said the harm reduction techniques have been successful and that they have saved the lives of at least two MASC clients. 

Some addiction specialists disagree with the theory and claim harm reduction simply enables and prolongs addictive behavior. Dr. Davida Coady, Director of Options for Recovery, which is also located in the Veterans Memorial Building, said harm reduction is a dangerous approach. 

“My experience is that it just doesn’t work for people who have severe or moderate addictions,” she said. “We have people come in here on the brink of death and many of them have been trying harm reduction techniques.” 

Long said many of the addicts that come to MASC have been homeless for years and have few prospects for finding housing or work. He said the level of despair and hopelessness they experience is not conducive to dealing with addiction. 

“I can’t go out there and say ‘all right we’re going to an AA meeting and you’re going to continue to live on the street and continue to be homeless and never drink again,’” he said. “My bottom line is abstinence but how do you do that? How do you get them there?”