Citizens helping to create a new downtown plan for Berkeley turned their attention to one of the city center’s perennial conundrums Wednesday night: street
The occasion was a session on social issues and housing, that featured a panel that included city housing officials, a non-profit developer, an advocate for the poor and homeless and the executive director of the Berkeley YMCA.
But it was clearly the issue of the poor and the homeless who frequent, sleep and panhandle along downtown streets that most concerned the members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC).
Created as a result of the settlement agreement ending the city’s lawsuit against UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan 2020, DAPAC is charged with making a new plan for an expanded downtown area that will include a million square feet of new university uses.
Jane Micallef, who coordinates the Shelter Plus Care program for the city Housing Department, said one goal of the new plan should be a call for increased cooperation between the university and city on housing issues involving the poor and homeless.
A model, she said, could be the extensive research and survey work conducted by the University of Pennsylvania for Philadelphia, “which makes it much easier to argue for funds.” No such alliance exists between Berkeley and UC, she said, though she acknowledged later that “we haven’t done as much outreach as we could.”
Micallef said other priorities for the new plan should include:
• setting a priority on the need for housing and social services in the downtown;
• calling for a costly seismic retrofit and improvements at the Veterans’ Memorial Building at 1931 Center St., where many services for the homeless are now located; and
• adding more incentives for developers to create housing for the homeless and extremely low-income tenants, possibly through expediting the city approval process for projects that include the units.
The reality of street life in Berkeley is more complex than simple stereotypes would suggest, committee members learned.
For one thing, many of the downtown panhandlers who seek the change of passers-by along Shattuck Avenue and other downtown streets aren’t homeless.
“People who are housed are twice as likely to be involved in panhandling and recycling activity,” said Micallef. “They may look a lot like homeless people but they are actually housed.” By recycling activity, Micallef said she meant the people who rummage through curbside recycling bins.
Peter Chong, executive director of the downtown YMCA, said aggressive panhandling is a real problem for people who visit the Y, as panhandlers sometimes pursue intended marks for blocks.
Berkeley’s homeless population is unique, in part because the city has 40 percent of Alameda County’s chronically homeless, largely single males, Micallef said. One reason may be the perception that Berkeley is friendlier to the down-trodden.
“There are fewer homeless families in Berkeley because there are slightly more resources for single people while other communities have slightly more resources for families,” said Boona Cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), a program that provides services and job training for those at society’s margins.
DAPAC member and BOSS economic development program director Winston Burton said, “People feel a lot safer on the streets here than in communities like East Oakland,” especially those with mental problems.
“Berkeley is a community of tolerance,” he said.
“Homeless people here are really committed to staying in Berkeley,” Micallef said. “You hear people saying that Berkeley police are a lot more respectful.”
Another attraction, she said, is that Berkeley has its own mental health program, “and people who are mentally ill feel more comfortable here than anywhere else.”
But the city also spends a disproportionate amount of funds on emergency services for the homeless, Micallef said, adding that those costs would probably drop if more housing could be found.
Is there something Berkeley is doing that is attractive to the chronically homeless? asked DAPAC Chair Will Travis.
“Yeah,” said Billy Keys, DAPAC member and Berkeley High School Safety Officer. “We have poured in a lot of services, and it is socially acceptable to be homeless here.”
DAPAC member Patti Dacey said the state psychiatric hospital in Napa used to give discharged patients bus tickets to Berkeley, “because they knew there would be services and support.”
“What the homeless need most is housing,” said Dacey, but others noted that getting that isn’t simple.
For one thing, Berkeley doesn’t have many of the vacant buildings that can be transformed into a single room occupancy (SRO) residence, with shared kitchen and bath facilities, or other types of housing, Cheema said. And another reality is the long time lag between approving new housing and its eventual opening.
“Imagine today if we decided to build an SRO,” Cheema said, “and that we had all the money and land and no neighborhood opposition.”
Even then, she said, it would be anywhere from five to seven years before doors opened. “The real challenge for those of us who provide social solutions and who are being asked to come up with a strategy for housing is that those units don’t exist now,” she said.
Another problem is money—not only funds to build new units but the cash to help their tenants make the transition from street life.
Housing alone isn’t a solution without social services to support the needs of a population with chemical dependency, mental health and other issues, said Cheema, “and we can’t be sure the money will be there for services by the time we have the housing.”
Chris Hess, director of resident services for affordable housing developer RCD, agreed, noting that his Berkeley-based non-profit has been forced to cut social service positions at projects they have developed.
“People need support to make the transition from homelessness,” he said.
RCD affordable housing projects have expanded from Berkeley to Oakland and the three East Bay counties—Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano. They are the developers of the Oxford Plaza project, which will add 97 units of affordable housing in the heart of downtown Berkeley and six other projects in the city, including the Margaret Breland Homes scheduled to open Nov. 1.
Accessibility was also an issue, especially for those with disabilities and parents of disabled youths who use special programs at the Y.
Other issues raised by Y clients included dirty streets, especially along Allston Way, difficulty in parking and the perception that downtown streets are dangerous, particularly at night.
DAPAC member Rob Wrenn said he didn’t feel particularly threatened downtown, “maybe because I’m a male,” and he asked if crime was more a question of perception than reality.
Matt Taecker, the planner hired by the city with UC Berkeley funds to help prepare the plan, said that police figures show that downtown is a hotspot for crime.
Because of the concentration of the homeless and panhandlers in the downtown area, Judy Chess, a planner who is a UC Berkeley ex-officio DAPAC member, said the best solution is to create more diversity in the center by attracting more people.
“We have to broaden the range of people so that” the behaviors of some of the downtown denizens “is not so defining a feature.”