Winter’s chill makes jail seem appealing for homeless

By Bruce Gerstman, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday December 07, 2001

Union proposes to transform the old Hall of Justice into temporary shelter



Kalief Lahutt, generally a resident of People’s Park, was walking through a storm a couple of weeks ago looking for a place to sleep when he passed the old, empty Hall of Justice building.  

Perfect for a homeless shelter, safer than the streets, he thought.  

“Where’s the key?” 

The coordinating director of the Berkeley Homeless Union, a loose organization of homeless people living in the city, Lahutt presented a proposal to the City Council last week to transform the building – to be demolished next summer – into a shelter where 100 people could lay down their sleeping bags at night during the chilly winter months, December through April.  

The council was impressed enough to ask its staff to write a feasibility study for the council to review on Dec. 11.  

According to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the council could find the funding. But a key question must be answered first: Is it legal? 

“The biggest upside is that there would be lots of extra space to get people in from the cold, which is a high priority in the wintertime,” Worthington said. “But before we spend time moving money around, we need to make sure it’s legal.” 

Worthington said the city attorney is currently considering zoning issues for the shelter. The city attorney’s office declined to comment. 

Others, however, said problems with the building’s physical condition will keep the project from working out.  

Stephen Barton, director of the housing department, said his “current tentative view of the matter” is that the jail cannot safely become a shelter. He said during the last year – since the opening of the new Public Safety Building – the city left the building vacant and stopped maintaining it.  

“It would take a significant amount of time and money to get into good shape. And it would require a tremendous amount of staff,” Barton said.  

A jail, he said, is simply not set up to be a homeless shelter.  

“A jail can only meet fire and building code safety standards because it’s fully staffed all the time,” Barton said.  

He said large, open rooms work much better as shelter space than jail cells, which each hold a dozen people in separate units. Barton said the city currently provides about 25 percent of all shelter beds available in Alameda County. And instead of the city adding more space, he said he would like to see other nearby towns offer temporary shelter. 

Lahutt said the shelter will work fine without much money. His proposal calls for a full-time staff of three to be supplemented by volunteers. 

Lahutt said he thinks the staff will work unpaid. Though his proposal asks for a payroll of about $30,000, “if there’s no money available, the Berkeley Homeless Union will do it for free,” he said. 

The union wants the operation to be run by homeless people and to acquire donated food: dinners from Food Not Bombs and breakfasts from The Dorothy Day Center, Lahutt said. 

The shelter could not last any longer than through April because the city plans to demolish the building this summer and create a parking lot for city employees in its place.  

Worthington said this makes the project more attractive.  

“If you were proposing to open something permanent, people in the area would probably protest, but if it’s temporary, fewer people would be likely to protest.”