St. Mark's Offers Shelter in Bad Weather

By Lydia Gans
Friday January 25, 2008

Posted Sat., Jan. 26—When heavy winter rains and cold weather are predicted even that hardiest of homeless people find themselves desperate for shelter.  

Thanks to funding from the city of Berkeley, the generosity of the congregation of St. Marks Episcopal Church—and some luck and community support—there is a haven from the storms.  

If it looks like it will be a bad night, signs reading “GIMME SHELTER” in big red letters are posted at places where homeless people are likely to be, announcing that St. Marks will be open at 7 p.m. for anyone needing a warm, dry bed for the night. The word then quickly goes out via cell phones to the street dwellers in the community. The emergency storm shelter is operated by J.C. Orton of Dorothy Day House. 

For a number of years, shelter for the homeless was provided by a rotating arrangement among several churches with each hosting the shelter for three months at a time. Then in 2002, the city took an interest.  

As J.C. Orton tells it, the city approached Dorothy Day House, which provides meals and other services, and “asked us ‘what do you think of the idea of creating a shelter?' We said ‘interesting but how would it work?’ They said ‘you guys find a venue and we’ll throw some money at it and you provide people and logistics to make it work.’”  

The hardest part of such an enterprise is finding a place for it. There are no facilities dedicated to providing round the clock social services for anyone. Orton approached the various churches that had hosted the shelter part time in the past. All refused except St. Marks, which has the smallest congregation and least resources. And they ask for no compensation for their expenses—the heating bill alone is no small item. 

The shelter is open only on rainy or very cold nights. There is enough funding this year for 66 nights. If J.C. decides to open the shelter he has to put out the announcements by early afternoon. That can call for some tricky decision making. If it looks like it will be stormy and he opens up and the weather turns out to be balmy the night is “wasted.” On the other hand if the weather turns ugly too late in the day to plan on opening, a lot of people will be very miserable.  

The doors are open from 7 to 9 p.m. for people to sign in. Each person is given a pad, a sheet and blanket for the night. J.C. also gives out sleeping bags that people can keep with them. The sheets are collected in the morning and taken to the laundromat. The room is large and radiant heating around the perimeter keeps it comfortably warm. There are usually between 50 and 60 people, four to six times as many men as women, mostly people between 26 and 55 years of age though there is a significant and increasing number of older people over 55. Many are chronically homeless and come to the shelter repeatedly whenever it is open. 

By 9 p.m. most people have settled down, reading, relaxing on their mats or in quiet conversation. For someone who is homeless and has virtually no income surviving from day to day is extraordinarily difficult. Leaving the shelter at 7 a.m. (most shelters put people out at that early hour so the facility can be cleaned up for the daytime users) there is usually an hour wait for a free breakfast—somewhere. During the day, between trudging all over town for lunch or dinner meals which are served at various locations and different times each day, and taking care of personal needs like showers and laundry, there is little opportunity to earn money with occasional jobs or panhandling, let alone save enough to get into housing.  

We talked with Van who has been staying at the shelter frequently for several years. She does odd jobs, recycles, sells Street Spirit newspaper, but she says “even if I get a job today and work 24/7 I would still not have enough money to afford a place.” Coming up with first and last month and security deposit, “I’ll still be on the street for eight months trying to save money” to get into permanent housing. Meantime it’s a great relief to be able to stay out of the rain. 

Juan is 45 years old, he has a disability and, he says, “I have a substance abuse problem ... but I’m making steps, getting help. I’m clean and sober now.” But being on the street makes it much harder. “(It) gives you the perfect excuse to go out there and say the hell with it, nobody else cares. But I do care and J.C. cares about me,” he says. “He cares about people.”  

A distinguished looking, white haired man who won’t give his name, “Call me Center and Shattuck” says “I’m here because it’s raining and I’m homeless” and when the shelter isn’t open “I sleep out on the streets in various places.” He has skills, he has had jobs, but bad luck has dogged him so he hasn’t managed to save enough money to get into an apartment. Like many other homeless people ‘Center and Shattuck’ is worried that the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative Berkeley just passed will bring about more harassment of people who are living on the street.  

On the positive side, asked if he thinks the city is doing better or worse with regard to homelessness, J.C. Orton who has been providing services for Berkeley’s homeless for many years, sees some improvement.  

“I think it’s important to give the city credit for what they are doing. (But) I think it’s important that the city do more,” he says. “Regardless of how much the city does it will never be enough.”