The city of Berkeley is known across the country as a haven for homeless people, but that reputation wasn’t built solely on open spaces like People’s Park or Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. For decades, Berkeley has funded services that provide short-term shelter and housing solutions, employment programs, free meals, health services, substance abuse treatment and legal services.
Nonprofit organizations in Berkeley began providing shelter services and free meals as far back as the 1970s, and because of the high quality of their work, the city funded these programs instead of establishing its own services. Currently, the city spends $2.9 million to fund more than 20 nonprofit organizations that provide services for the city’s homeless population, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.
The Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which began in 1970 with a handful of volunteers, is one of those core organizations. The project has evolved into a $3.5 million operation that provides “the most critical services,” according to executive director Terrie Light — meals, shorter-term and long-term shelters, transitional housing and case management.
Funding for the project comes from private donations, city funds, federal awards from the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs. In 2013, the project received about $600,000 from Berkeley.
“Where we think we specialize and spend most of our effort is in housing people and feeding them,” Light said. “In housing them, our goal is determining what the person needs so that once they go through our housing program, they hopefully won’t need to come back.” Yet, after the national economy fell into a recession in 2008, community organizations such as BFHP received less funding and had to scale back the amount and scale of services they provided.
The recession not only led to reduced state and federal funding but also less tax revenue coming into the city’s general fund, leaving less to be distributed to the community agencies that provide the city’s homeless services, Arreguin said. In 2009, the city allocated about $3.4 million to fund such agencies.
“It’s been a ghastly five years, not just in our sector but across the board,” Light said. “Nonprofits like us have struggled to find funds to do work that some would say what is the government’s responsibility.”
Light added that because the size and need of the city’s homeless population have since increased, returning funding to prerecession levels should be among the city’s highest priorities.
According to a 2009 count, 680 people in Berkeley were homeless at the time, with 41 percent severely mentally ill, 40 percent chronic substance abusers and 20 percent military service veterans.
Arreguin said that there could be more done to address certain communities of homeless people, including increasing resources for youth and mental health assistance.
But many of those gaps can be addressed as long as they are reported to her organization, according to Elaine de Coligny, who is executive director of EveryOne Home, an Oakland-based nonprofit that evaluates whether the service providers in Alameda County are meeting the standards set forth by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and helps coordinate their efforts.
“There’s room for improvement,” Arreguin said. “There are a variety of social services in Berkeley but not as much coordination as there should be.”
Regardless, homelessness remains a deeply contentious and divisive issue in Berkeley. In November, voters narrowly defeated Measure S, a ballot measure that sought to ban sitting or lying on commercial sidewalks during business hours. The measure reignited dialogue within the City Council to address the root causes of homelessness.
In January, the council voted to implement the Compassionate Sidewalks Plan, under which a community-based group to address the demographics and causes of homelessness and to analyze existing homeless programs and funding sources has since been formed.
The ideas that arise from these discussions should help service providers eliminate coverage gaps and inform future City Council decisions regarding homelessness, Arreguin said.
Ed Cabrera, a senior management analyst with the regional Housing and Urban Development administrator’s office, is encouraged by this hands-on approach.
“The service providers are important, but a lot of them are working pretty independently from each other,” Cabrera said. “It usually takes an elected official or communitywide process to get everyone working together.”
Still, it remains to be seen whether services for the homeless population can be adequately distributed without proper funding.
Contact Christopher Yee at [email protected].