It’s been a busy first four weeks in the Mayor’s office. In addition to hiring staff and chairing my first City Council meeting, we immediately began addressing one of Berkeley’s most pressing issues – homelessness.
Over the past year, I have talked to many of you about the need to expand housing and services for the homeless. My staff and I are exploring a number of policies and proposals to move toward a Housing First strategy by expanding permanent housing. We will also be working with leaders in other cities on developing regional approaches since this issue is bigger than Berkeley. Until we get there, interim and emergency measures are needed; the cold and rainy nights have brought the need for shelter front and center. A few homeless people have sadly died in the cold on our streets in recent weeks.
Since taking office on December 1, 2016, I have been working diligently to address the immediate needs of Berkeley’s homeless population with the ultimate goal of permanent supportive housing.
At the first regular meeting of the new City Council on December 13, 2016 the council voted to activate an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The idea was the result of my conversations with the City Manager about the urgency of expanding shelters. The next dayon December 14, the City augmented its homeless services by:
- Doubling the bed capacity of Berkeley’s Emergency Storm Shelter to 130 beds. These beds are in addition to the 140 shelter beds the City provides through The Hub, the City’s coordinated homeless entry system (www.cityofberkeley.info/homeless-entry);
- Increasing warming center hours so that people can be indoors during the day;
- Documenting all encampment locations and giving them information about new shelter opportunities;
- Providing shuttle van transportation for people between shelters to increase access and ensure no one was turned away due to capacity;
- Enhancing outreach to encampments by daily visits from Berkeley Mental Health staff and/or community agency visits, distribution of flyers and one-on-one conversations.
In addition, on December 13th the City Council:
- Created an Ad-Hoc Committee to work with the City Manager and staff to explore emergency solutions/interim measures to address our homeless needs;
- Restored cuts in funding to homeless services.
- The Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness (which I Chair) met on December 20th and developed the following immediate action list:
- Create a 24-hour shelter environment that will provide consistent relief for at least 80 people for a period of 60 days
- Include storage capacity at all shelter locations
- Work with Animal Control to accommodate pets at shelter locations
- Provide transportation to warming centers and night shelters
- Continue outreach to encampment locations
- Begin research on low-barrier shelters that include intensive case management and wrap-around services with a goal of establishing a similar system in 60 days
- Continue to explore options for a structured encampment, including but not limited to applications for permission to camp, rules and regulations regarding conduct, limits on length of stay, and providing some stability of location and physical security to allow homeless individuals to rest, access sanitary facilities and connect with outreach workers, housing and services.
- Modify the city’s policies regarding the storage and retrieval of property confiscated during enforcement actions
- Creation of a longer-term Navigation Center
On Friday, December 23rd, the City opened a new 45-bed shelter at 1231 Second Street that includes pet kennels, storage and locked facilities for bicycles. This shelter will evolve to provide 24-hour access and include showers and daily visits from Berkeley Mental Health and/or community agencies.
Often times we see that change takes time within government bureaucracies. But the commitment of the new Council and staff to immediately expand shelter and emergency services for the homelessness have resulted in swift action. As a result of these incredible efforts, homeless residents will now have safe and warm spaces and we can engage and connect people to services and housing. While there is certainly more work to be done, I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.
The work continues. The City Council’s Ad-Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness will meet in the coming weeks to discuss creating a 24/7 shelter and moving towards a Navigation Center. In addition, we will be working on expanding permanent supportive housing.
Regarding the “First They Came for the Homeless” Encampment
I have received many emails from neighbors throughout Berkeley regarding the ongoing protest tent encampment which has moved throughout Berkeley. These encampments have not been sanctioned by the City and staff have taken enforcement action based on complaints from residents. Camping on public property, including medians, is illegal under the Berkeley Municipal Code. City staff can take complaint driven enforcement action regarding any violations of the Municipal Code. Unlike other cities, Berkeley’s Charter does not give the Mayor executive authority to hire or direct staff. As Mayor, my role is to shape city policy and work with the City Manager to implement city policies and initiatives. I do not alone have the unilateral power to direct staff to enforce, or not enforce, violations of the Berkeley Municipal Code.
My staff, and others, are working during this holiday season to connect these campers and others throughout the city to resources and the new 60-day shelter. It is our hope that people living in encampments will choose to live indoors.
In 2017, I look forward to continuing my work on addressing homelessness in addition to many other critical challenges facing our city. For now, best wishes to you and your family for a safe and prosperous New Year. Thank you for the honor of serving as your Mayor.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin