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Berkeley’s Homeless Get Good, Bad News

Friday December 26, 2003

The holidays are bringing a mixed bag to Berkeley’s homeless.  

Alameda County will receive $21.2 million in federal funding—second most in the state—to sustain programs that house the chronically homeless, The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last week. 

But the Berkeley Fire Department has run out of blankets for the homeless, the county food bank recently ran out of food, and City of Berkeley officials still expect more cuts to state-funded programs. 

Thirteen Berkeley-based programs are among the county’s 58 slated to receive continued funding from the HUD funds, said city Community Services Specialist Kristen Lee, though she added that fallout from the city and state budget crises will likely mean reduced services to the homeless this year. 

Only Los Angeles County received more funding than Alameda, which garnered over $5 million more than San Francisco. 

“Over the past several years Alameda has had good programs so they have a higher number of renewals,” said HUD spokesperson Larry Bush. 

After years of purely competitive bidding for HUD money, Alameda County created a vast array of HUD-sponsored programs. Now that the agency uses a formula to allocate renewal grants, the county has grandfathered in the programs guaranteeing it a larger share of the pie, explained Megan Schatz of the Alameda County-wide Homeless Continuum of Care. 

Also, by tailoring their programs to emphasize permanent housing solutions, which the White House is pushing, Bush said, the county has given itself a leg up on other jurisdictions. This year Alameda County won a competitive bid from HUD to fund a group home in Livermore. 

Homelessness across the county is declining according to a survey released by the Continuum of Care earlier this year. Results showed that at any given time there are 6,215 homeless people in Alameda County, 1,280 listed as chronically homeless. In Berkeley, the survey found 835 homeless people, mostly middle-aged men. 

Among the city programs safeguarded by the HUD allocation are the Shelter Plus Care Program, which provides rental assistance and social services to 129 households, the Harrison House Shelter operated by Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency and the Peter Babcock House which proves housing and care for AIDS patients. 

County officials hope they can eventually wipe out chronic homelessness, but, except for the new Livermore facility, the money from HUD will not expand services at a time when, anecdotal evidence suggests, the need for essential services is growing. 

Fire Station 5 in South Berkeley has had to turn away homeless after they ran out of blankets, said Capt. Rod Foster. “There’s been more demand this year than any other year I recall,” he said. “[The Blankets] were flying out of here.” 

Over Thanksgiving, the Alameda County Community Food Bank had to turn away needy after it ran out of food, said Executive Director Suzan Bateson. “We’re struggling to make ends meet,” she said, adding that her organization had received about 400,000 pounds of food—about the same as last year—but that need is up 35 percent. 

Schatz said that cutbacks to Medical and other state programs have added to the ranks of the needy and strained the county’s service delivery system, including emergency shelters and case management services. 

Berkeley services face cuts as well. Last week Barton had to submit 20 percent department-wide cuts to help the city dig itself out from a massive budget deficit. Though the final cuts will likely fall short of 20 percent, they will likely impact the city’s $1.6 million homeless budget, three-fourths of which goes to support the city’s 250 emergency shelter beds as well as emergency support services such as meals, showers and drop-in centers. 

“We’ll look for areas where there’s efficiencies by merging programs,” he said adding he would seek the input of citizen commissions to prioritize services. 

Anyone wanting to make a donation to the food bank can contribute at a local Safeway or Albertsons or call 834-3663.