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Homeless Village Moves Forward

Tuesday September 30, 2003

Ursula Sherman Village—Berkeley’s most ambitious proposed home for homeless families—is two steps closer to becoming a reality, but environmental and funding concerns are forcing an outcome somewhat different than the original design. 

Two weeks ago, teams from Golden Gate Tank Removal Inc. removed a pair of underground storage tanks—measuring three feet by eight feet—buried beside Harrison House, the existing homeless shelter at the site of the proposed homeless village at Harrison and Fourth Streets. 

Removal took five days and cost $75,000, paid for with money from the city public works department and city housing funds that had been earmarked to upgrade Harrison House. 

The tanks, discovered when a vent was spotted protruding above ground, were found to contain small amounts of gasoline and required disposal at a state-approved facility, said Deputy Manager of Public Works Patrick Keilch. 

They were just the latest in a series of environmental concerns the project has had to overcome since Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) first conceived of it four years ago. 

BOSS envisions the project as a supportive, self-contained four-building village where about 40 homeless families and 80 individuals can live and receive social services on site. The non-profit has secured city and state funding to build two homes to house abut 35 families next to Harrison House, which they also operate. 

A planned community center with some extra housing for residents remains unfunded. 

The shelter’s location on city property away from residential neighborhoods in the heart of industrial West Berkeley has been both a blessing and a curse. 

While BOSS planners haven’t had to placate any neighborhood groups, air pollution blown in from the project’s closet neighbors—the Berkeley Transfer Station, Interstate I-80 and the Union Pacific Railroad—nearly derailed the project. 

Air samples collected last year by the city’s Department of Toxics showed elevated levels of particulate matter—airborne solids or liquids from various sources—that at times exceeded state standards. The dirty dust, much of it coming from vehicle exhaust, is known to aggravate asthma. 

In July, the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board approved air quality mitigations listed in the project’s Environmental Impact Report, giving BOSS the green light to proceed. 

“Yes, it’s not wonderful air quality, but the project has overriding social value,” said Berkeley Housing Director Stephen Barton. “It’s healthier than if [the residents] were out on the street.” 

To reduce risk to shelter residents, the city has implemented mitigations at its garbage transfer station across the street from the shelter. After installing a mist system inside the station last year to knock the dust particles from the air, Tom Farrell, manager of the city’s recycling and solid waste division, said the city recently erected a 16-foot vine-covered fence to trap some of the dust before it blows to the shelter. The city also planted poplar trees to block dust and designated a street sweeper to clean the grounds at the station. 

Because transfer station modifications may fail to reduce particulate matter below state standards, BOSS reworked their building plan. 

Originally designed as a state-of-the-art sustainable structure using straw bail insulation, BOSS is now focusing costs on purifying the air inside the buildings. 

“We want to give [the residents] the best air possible so we are going with a higher end air filtration system,” said BOSS Executive Director boona cheema. Residents with a history of respiratory problems will be housed at a different BOSS shelter. 

Diminished funding forced BOSS to scale back plans for the community center. “We’ve shrunk the project a little bit in terms of the community space because we don’t think we will be able to raise the money,” cheema said, adding that government money earmarked for housing cannot be used to pay for amenities like a child care center or a job training lab. That money comes from private foundation grants, which have dried up recently, she said. 

cheema said she hopes to sign a long-term lease with the city in November and start construction on the two housing projects in January. Harrison House itself will have to wait until at least another year.