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Winter Shelters Open Despite Grim Economic Outlook

Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 09:47:00 AM

Despite the bleak economic scenario, Berkeley’s winter homeless shelters have reopened for the winter, with a couple of them reporting a slight boost in funding and one witnessing record turnouts. 

The city has typically offered at least four different kinds of shelter services to the homeless every winter, including the Winter Shelter program at the Oakland Army Base, the Winter Voucher program, the Emergency Storm Shelter program managed by Dorothy Day House and the Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (YEAH!) at the Lutheran Church of the Cross on University Avenue, which caters to young adults. 

According to a 2003 survey of Alameda County’s homeless population, conducted by the Alameda County Continuum of Care Council, approximately 835 people are homeless on any given night in Berkeley, including 785 adults and 50 children. 

A report submitted by Jane Micallef, acting director of the city’s housing department, states that the city has 150 beds located across four emergency shelters that operate throughout the year, although the demand for these beds—particularly during winter—consistently exceeds the number of beds available. 

Micallef said that the Winter Shelter and the Winter Voucher programs fill a critical gap in emergency housing, providing shelter to many of the “most fragile” of the local homeless crowd, especially when people struggle to find shelter from the cold winds or storms. 

A collaborative effort among the cities of Berkeley and Oakland, Alameda County and East Bay service providers, the Winter Shelter operates a 100-bed emergency winter shelter out of the former Oakland Army Base on a bud-get of $400,000, of which 29 percent comes from the City of Berkeley. 

Fifty of the 100 beds are set aside for Berkeley’s homeless.  

The Berkeley City Council recently approved an additional $5,000 in funds in October for the program to meet increasing facility costs, which raises Berkeley’s total contribution to $61,000. 

YEAH! was another organization that received a slight increase in funding this year, Micallef said, which is separate from the $100,000 grant it received in October to start daytime youth services as part of the city’s Public Commons for Everyone initiative. 

According to DeLyanda DeLeon, assistant director at YEAH!, the youth hostel had to turn away 15 people when it opened on Nov. 24 and already has large lines waiting to sign up for a spot almost an hour before it opens every day. 

“In the past seven to 10 boys and girls would show up,” she said. “We expected more this year because of the economy. Also, funding has gone down in a lot of shelters and they are sending over their overflow to us.” 

Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates, said that she was not expecting any cuts to homeless winter services in the city’s upcoming revenue and budget report due to be presented to the City Council by City Manager Phil Kamlarz on Monday. 

Sinai said that although the city’s health department had received a setback when it lost over $1 million because of the recent state budget cuts, the mayor was committed to maintain the city’s shelters. 

The Winter Shelter, which opened on Nov. 26 and will run through April 15, 2009, has been running for over five years now, Micallef said. 

“It’s very difficult to find a building to accommodate 100 beds for a particular time of the year,” she said. “We are lucky to have access to a property like that. Last week more than half the beds were full but we expect the numbers to ramp up a bit as soon as the wet weather starts.” 

Micallef said that when the army base was under repair, the program had been hosted out of different churches and recreational sites but had never undergone any interruption in its services. 

Run on a budget of $35,000, the city’s winter vouchers program primarily helps homeless families and disabled people with a medical condition by providing them with a room at local motels or the Berkeley YMCA for a short period of time. 

Candidates who apply for the vouchers are referred to the city by the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which runs the Men’s Shelter at the Veteran’s Building and the Women’s Resource Center on Dwight Way. 

“We set them up at one of the motels and pay the bill for a maximum of two weeks,” Micallef said, adding that the program has not had any takers so far this year. “The rooms can cost anything from $60 to $70 a night and if the family stays for a full week then the motel will give us a good deal. So we end up paying around $400 for a family for a week. However, it’s not a program which is widely available. It’s a very limited resource and meant only for people who are seriously in need.” 

Well into its sixth year now, the 50-bed Emergency Storm Shelter at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Bancroft Way officially opened Monday and will stay open for a total of 35 days over the next four months, since a tight budget only permits it to open on the days the East Bay weather is at its worst. 

The city pays Dorothy Day House a total of $68,000 to run the shelter and the weekday breakfasts at the Trinity Church next door. 

“We are a foul weather shelter,” said J.C. Orton, shelter director. “When we open we anticipate rain or extreme weather that evening. We always end up getting more than we have room for. I know we will have more people this year than we had last year, because the weather is going to be really bad this year.” 

Orton checks the Weather Channel and several Internet sites daily to determine whether to open the shelter. He then notifies the city’s homeless service providers, the Berkeley Police Department, Herrick Hospital and other agencies that spread the information through word of mouth. 

Orton, who also works at a soup kitchen and a food pantry, will be handing out sleeping bags to the shelter’s clients for the first time this year so that they have something to keep warm in when the shelter remains closed. 

“Shelters are not the answer,” he said. “Permanent housing is. It’s not a matter of dollars but a matter of attitude. People need to take moral responsibility. Until then, there will be shelters.” 

To find out whether the Emergency Storm Shelter is open, contact Orton at 684-1892. For more information on the city’s winter shelter services contact Jane Micallef at 981-5426