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BOSS poses Village idea for homeless

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday January 10, 2002

Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency Executive Director boona cheema shows her excitement as she talks about plans to build a “village” where homeless families can rely on a safe, secure and supportive environment while gaining the skills to overcome the trauma of living on the streets. 

Sitting at a large meeting table at BOSS’s Berkeley office, cheema is surrounded by diagrams, budget sheets and other documents that have been compiled to help navigate the proposed Ursula Sherman Village, named after BOSS’s founder. 

BOSS is a nonprofit organization that has provided homeless services in the East Bay since 1971 and currently operates 29 facilities that provide a variety of services. 

If the proposed village would provide “a smorgasbord of resources for housing, health, social, cultural, educational and economic security” for up to 132 children, youth and parents with “extreme barriers to self sufficiency,” according to a BOSS information sheet. 

Construction of the project is proposed in two phases. Phase 1, Picante House, which will house up to 10 families, has already been promised $1.1 million in funding from various sources, but has yet to be approved by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board. BOSS is still seeking funding for Phase 2, the Village Center that will include shared living quarters, a health and healing facility and adult and children’s education centers. 

The proposed Village programs will be incorporated with the existing Harrison House, an emergency shelter operating at 711 Harrison St. since 1975. 

“This will be a place where people can live with dignity,” cheema said, “a place where they can learn and where they can grow before moving back into the larger community with the skills they need to stay there.” 

Cheema said she expects the innovative, self-contained village to become a national model for combating homelessness. 

But before the two phases are approved, BOSS will have to overcome concerns about the proposed site, which is located in a traditionally industrial area in west Berkeley next to Interstate 80, the city’s waste transfer station and the railway tracks that cross the western part of the city. 

Harrison Soccer Field and the skate park project, adjacent to the site, have had environmental problems including preliminary test results from an ongoing air study that indicate elevated levels of particulate matter in the air and the presence of the carcinogen Chromium 6 in groundwater. The contaminated groundwater appeared during excavation of nine-foot-deep skate bowls last year. The water has since been removed and treated. The bases of the skate bowls were also “capped” to prevent future exposure. 

“The site has some challenges,” an undaunted cheema said. “It’s not unusual that when you find a solution to a problem that makes perfect sense, you still encounter challenges at every step. But I am prepared to address the problems and work with people to achieve this project.” 

Cheema said the village will provide residents with a three-tiered program to help them reenter society.  

“As the residents move from one tier to the next, they take on increasing responsibilities for themselves and the management of the village,” she said. 

The first tier is the emergency shelter where people initially come in from the street. There they can deal with their most critical needs, including food and shelter. They will also be able to access help for untreated mental and physical illnesses as well as substance abuse counseling.  

Once physically and mentally stable, residents will move to the second tier, the Picante House, where they can participate in more intensive counseling. During the second tier of the program, cheema said there is a much higher expectation of staying clean and sober as well as increased responsibilities in preparing meals and other domestic work. Some residents will begin to work at outside jobs and all of the residents will be expected to start saving money. 

The third tier is the Village Center, where up to 32 parents and children will live in shared housing. “This is the phase where residents are back on their feet, but still have little money,” cheema said. “They can continue to save money as well as take advantage of easy access to education, culture and support, all of which will be available on site.” 

Housing Director Stephen Barton said the concept shows promise. “What she is trying to accomplish is providing comprehensive transitional housing, social services and educational support in one community setting,” Barton said. “It’s a great concept, but there’s always the problem of funding.” 

Cheema admitted the per-unit cost for the village will be higher than traditional affordable housing projects because of the amenities such as education, medical and cultural facilities. But she said the investment will have a payoff. 

“This program will take financial pressure off other social services,” cheema said. “If you just continue to put people in the same dilapidated shelters, their behavior doesn’t change. But If you give people a place they can take pride in, their behavior really starts to change and healthy, functional people cost less.”