Berkeley’s Homeless Seek Shelter from the Storm By JUDITH SCHERR

Tuesday February 28, 2006

A series of blustery storms that pelted the Bay Area during most of the day and night Sunday drove locals indoors to enjoy the warmth and comfort of their homes. 

Michael Crim and his wife Beverly have no permanent home, but found warmth and welcome at Berkeley’s Emergency Storm Shelter located, since the roof fell in at St. Mark’s Church in early January, at the Trinity United Methodist Church on Bancroft Way. 

“On a night like this, this place saves us,” said Crim, a Vietnam veteran. 

Sunday evening he was sitting on one of the 50 or so cots, wrapped in an army surplus blanket, studying for Monday classes at Vista College, where he’s majoring in computer engineering. 

“This winter’s been very tough on everybody—a lot of rain,” he said. 

The city funds three winter shelters. One located at the Oakland Army base houses some 50 homeless persons each night from November through April. Berkeley residents get vouchers from service providers and can stay for 30 days. This shelter, which will probably not be available next year due to development of the property, also houses 50 people from Oakland.  

There are motel/YMCA vouchers available for between two and four medically fragile people each day for two-week periods. 

And then there’s “J.C.’s place.” That’s the emergency shelter where Michael Crim and his wife were staying Sunday night. 

“That man right there has helped a lot of people, J.C.,” Crim said. “He’s been doing it for years. It’s very helpful for us. A lot of people are grateful. I’m grateful.”  

J.C. Orton is the affable man associated with the Catholic Worker who runs the shelter and an emergency food program. Orton said this shelter is unusual because it enforces fewer rules than most. 

“There’s no intake assessment,” he said. “You don’t need referrals.” There’s no limit of days a person can stay. “You can come in and out.” 

Another man who asked that his real name not be used said he would not go to other shelters. 

“Basically this place is good,” he said. “People are nice. You don’t feel like you’re in a jail atmosphere. (At other shelters) they lock you in. This is not institutional. Right now, I have no tobacco, so I’m going to hop on my bike and go up the street and get some tobacco.” 

The shelter is bare-boned. 

“You can’t make lasagna when you want to and you can’t watch HBO,” the man said. “You can’t sit on the couch with your girlfriend, but you’re not exposed to the elements, which basically consists of policemen.” 

People don’t even have to identify themselves, Orton said, pointing to a sign-in sheet. “There’s a couple of John Does.” 

Also, if people come in with what he called a “situation,” and they’re boisterous, he or other staff will ask them to take a walk around the block and come back.  

Ultimately, shelters are not the answer, Orton said. 

“People need to get housing and retain housing,” he said. To keep their housing, some people need advocates working long term with them, he said. 

The county estimates that there are about 850 homeless people in Berkeley; 150 are housed in year-round shelters and another 150 are in winter emergency shelters. Others are in transitional housing. The city has no estimate of how many people are on the street each night, according to Shelter Plus Care Coordinator Jane Micallef. 

Michael Crim’s wife Beverly, who asked to be identified only by her first name, snuggled under a blanket on her cot, lined up with six other women’s cots and screened off from the much larger men’s section. Beverly said she was attacked and beaten on San Pablo Avenue and became prone to seizures as a result. She survives on state disability income. She and Michael would prefer a real home, but that’s not possible right now. 

“Everything is so high—first and last month’s rent,” Beverly said. “They want $400 for a place then they want $400 [for first and last month rent], then they want $50 more for the key. I don’t have it to spare. I’m not lazy or nothing. Before I knew it—it’s all my check.” 

Crim said he used to sleep in Strawberry Canyon, near the university.  

“That was kind of hard for Beverly, and it got so wet,” he said. “I lost a lot of clothes and books. We started moving around. The Berkeley police found us in one spot and they made us move. We went to the underground parking lot of a church and the UC police gave us a ticket. So then we went to Oakland and we were sleeping in the back of a school.” 

That works when it’s not raining. 

It’s not easy to find workers who can come in and spend the night at the shelter with little lead time, Orton said. Jnana Bryant is a massage therapist and able to combine both jobs. 

“The vast majority of them are very sweet, very tender, very caring,” she said. “It’s the part people miss. They just see somebody on the street begging. If you take a few minutes, and talk to that person you can have some of the most amazing moments of your life by talking to somebody. They have great perceptions because they are really living on the edge. They can teach us something.”