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Harrison Park pollution threatens homeless shelter

By Matthew Artz Daily Planet Staff
Thursday September 05, 2002


Air pollution in west Berkeley is jeopardizing construction of a state-of-the-art homeless shelter and community space near Harrison Park. 

The pending 140-person Ursula Sherman Village project was put on hold earlier this year after the developer learned that repeated air monitor tests by the city’s Department of Toxics found high levels of Particulate Matter 10 in air at the site. 

City officials say that the pollution is caused by a nearby garbage transfer station and by automobile and train traffic.  

It can bring on asthma and other respiratory diseases in people living at the site. Users of adjacent sports fields have in the past raised health concerns.  

Delay in constructing the planned shelter stalls hundreds of homeless Berkeley families in their effort to re-enter society, said Boona Cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), the nonprofit development group. 

“We will not put housing for the poor in a detrimental area, but there is no other place in the East Bay where we can do this,” Cheema said. “We have a crisis in this community.” 

The city has commissioned further air quality tests to make sure the readings at the site were accurate. However, if the latest readings stand, the project could be dumped. 

If it is built, however, the Village would be a “national model” for homeless shelters, Cheema said. 

The plan calls for three buildings: a renovated emergency care shelter at the site – the Harrison House, a transitional home for families – the Picante House, and a mixed-use community center and housing co-operative – the Village Center. 

The project would also include a three-step program aimed at getting residents back on their feet. 

New residents would enter the new Harrison House, currently a shelter with limited space, to get food, shelter and drug detox and have access to mental and physical counseling. 

The Picante House would serve as a transition center where residents would acclimate to increased responsibility. Here they would prepare meals and do domestic chores. 

Residents would then move into shared housing in the Village Center where they would live indefinitely in a supportive communal environment. They would work jobs outside of the Village to save money and to prepare for re-entry into society. 

The Village would house 140 residents including 45 children. All residents would have access to art, health and educational programs at the site. 

The project is both blessed and cursed by its location. 

Nestled in an industrial zone on city property, there is no nearby neighborhood organization that exists to oppose development. However, the lot is across from the Berkeley transfer station, a stopover for garbage on its way to landfills. Pollution there, with car emissions from nearby freeway traffic and trains, has contaminated the air, said Beck Cowoes of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center. 

Cheema said the dire lack of housing for Berkeley’s poorest residents should encourage finding a creative solution to the pollution problem. 

“Most of the affordable units built here are geared for people making just below median incomes, but there isn’t anything being developed for the very poor.” 

Cheema has already considered scaling down the project if the pending air quality reports turn out unfavorable. She may have to eliminate permanent housing at the Village Center. 

“I’m determined to build the village,” she said. “We’ve worked too hard and too long not see it through.” 

The city has given BOSS a favorable long-term lease as well as $650,000 toward construction. But the longer the air quality is in doubt, the higher BOSS’ expenses climb, Cheema said. Construction on the Picante House was scheduled to start this fall but has been postponed until spring. The delay has added to construction costs, she said. 

Meanwhile, BOSS stopped its fundraising drive because of uncertainty surrounding the project. BOSS has raised about $2.4 million of the estimated $6.6 million needed to complete construction.