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State Budget Cuts Threaten Men’s Shelter

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:43:00 AM

To the world, 1931 Center St. in downtown Berkeley is little more than what it claims to be at first glance: the historic Veterans’ Memorial Building. 

Those who have cared to scratch beneath its stately surface also identify it as a place for recovering crack addicts, alcoholics and former convicts for the better part of the day. 

But when the clock strikes 5 every evening, the building’s massive gray columns overlooking the Civic Center Park mean only one thing to a particular group of 50 men: home. 

Ever since the Berkeley Food and Housing Project has been partnering with the City of Berkeley to provide overnight shelter to homeless men in the basement of the Veterans’ Memorial, thousands have lined up outside its doors for a hot meal, a friendly smile and, most important, a warm bed for the night. 

The agency—which also runs a shelter for destitute women and children on Dwight Way and several other programs that offer the homeless transitional housing, meals as cheap as a quarter and free counseling—received some bad news recently, the effects of which have yet to be felt but are inevitable eventually. 

Terrie Light, executive director of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, said that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had decided to eliminate the Emergency Housing Assistance Fund—which accounts for 4 percent of the shelters’ total budget—to balance California’s staggering budget deficit. 

The governor’s announcement meant that almost $300,000 in shelter money was lost in five Bay Area counties, including $114,000 in Alameda County. 

The Berkeley men’s and women’s shelters—which have an annual budget of $735,000—are set to lose $30,000 on Dec. 31, when their state funds run out. 

“It’s shocking,” said Light, who has been with the agency since 1998. “It was so not expected. It’s just out of the blue. But then who’s advocating for homeless shelters? We don’t have the money to send people to fight for this in Sacramento. All our money goes in services. Our budget has no extra, it’s worn thin.” 

The agency also receives city and county funds—a resource Light said was secure for the time being—and has been blessed over the years with generous donors, a bit of luck she said she was afraid might soon run out given the plight of the current economy. 

Light added that although it was too soon to start making cuts in services and staff, the agency was holding an emergency meeting today (Thursday) to plan how to tackle the funding crunch. 

“It seems a small amount of money, but some of that money will go to salaries, to pay for toilet paper, utility bills,” she said. “We will have to look at reducing staff salaries. But it’s impossible to reduce staff at the men’s shelter because of a safety problem. It will become a dangerous place for people to stay.” 

On Tuesday night, 46 men had a spot reserved for them in one of the shelter’s four well-lighted cozy cubicles. Six of them were tuned in to MSNBC, listening to updates on the federal government’s bailout package, a group sat at the dining table playing dominos and some read the newspaper, keeping an eye out for the buzzer to go off at 7 p.m. for dinner. 

“It wasn’t always like this,” said Wanda Williams, who manages the shelter, smiling. “Twelve years ago it was pretty chaotic. Fights broke out all the time. We couldn’t figure out who should be here and who shouldn’t. But now we lock the doors at 7 p.m. Late-shows are only allowed if they have permission slips from us.” 

After Williams took over the agency eight years ago, she fought to remodel the shelter, located in the basement of a seismically unsafe building, and replaced 67 folding cots—which came with army blankets and little else—with 50 more-comfortable beds, each provided with a pull-out drawer that can be locked.  

“I love my guys. I will fight for them till the end,” she said, sitting in her tiny office next to the common room, which attracts a constant string of young and old men trying to get “a minute alone with Wanda.” 

Dinner on Wednesday night consisted of spaghetti and meatballs, tossed green salad, French bread and cake prepared by volunteers from Covenant Church. 

“They treat you good here,” said William Cooper, a recovering drug addict who has been at the shelter for four days. “You have to follow the rules, but they give you a place to study.” 

Cooper, who is from Oakland, is also taking a culinary class at Laney College and hopes to get a job at a local grocery store. 

When the shelter’s “clients”—as Williams’ assistant Mark Jackson calls them—get a bed from the drop-in center for the first time it’s good for 30 days.  

If the men can stay away from trouble during that time, which includes sticking to the 23 commandments handed out during orientation on the first day, they are given a 30-day extension. 

If someone turns out to be a “no-show,” his bed is stripped and disinfected for the next person on the waitlist. 

“When we open at 5 p.m. and I talk to the guys, I smell liquor on their breath,” said Williams, who signs the men in along with her staff of 10. “Some are high on weed, but I can’t throw them out, because this is not a dry shelter. If they are belligerent or use profanities or can’t walk because they are so drunk, then we will ask them to leave because they might be a danger to themselves or us. Other than that, anyone who is over 18 and has an ID is welcome.” 

Everyone has to be out by 7 a.m., when the space is used by another homeless service center. Some parts of the building are also used by Options Recovery Services, which provides case-management for alcoholics and addicts. 

Most of the men at the shelter who are unaware of the recent cuts become concerned when it’s mentioned. 

“What if I decide to get a job?” asked Secondo Fairley, who transferred from a transitional house to the shelter last week because he wasn’t able to quit smoking. “Will I be able to get one? This is the longest I have been unemployed. It’s been almost three months now.” 

Cooper sits down next to him, moisturizing his arms before retiring to his cubicle for the night. 

“I am worried that the cuts will force me out on the streets again,” he said, looking worried. “And I don’t want to go back there.”