What do you do when you live out on the street and the systems designed to help you are inaccessible to you? What do you do when there is no one to keep you from drowning in a sea of bureaucracy as you search for a home? Perhaps the better question is — where do you go?
These questions troubled me when somebody who was houseless on Telegraph Avenue asked me for help and I did not know where to point them. They troubled me when my newfound friends in the tent community near my apartment told me about their struggles with living on the street. They troubled me when I saw a notice stuck to one of the tents stating that they would be forcibly removed if they did not vacate the area within a week. They troubled me most of all when I passed that area on my way back from campus one day and found the space completely empty.
I spent hours that day worrying — wondering if they were all right and where they had gone. So, really, where do you go?
They troubled me most of all when I passed that area on my way back from campus one day and found the space completely empty.
For many, shelters for the houseless immediately come to mind — rightly so. Shelters provide a place of refuge and temporary stability, giving individuals who are houseless the window of opportunity they need to find the assistance they require. I learned more about this speaking to Gwen Austin, community engagement manager at Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, or BOSS, a nonprofit organization that strives “to help homeless, poor, and disabled people achieve health and self-sufficiency, and to fight against the root causes of poverty and homelessness.” BOSS runs a number of shelters in Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward and San Leandro.
“Our shelter here in Berkeley is a dorm; it has beds. Everyone has a locker, everyone has a shower every day. … They have breakfast and lunch and dinner and community, and they have case management; we get them their medical stuff all together,” Austin said. “We work to help them to have a better frame of mind and help them to be in a safe place, help them to have some stability.”
This makes shelters sound like oases for individuals who are houseless, and there are, indeed, a number of shelters in the city of Berkeley and the wider Bay Area. Why, then, does houselessness continue to be such a prominent issue? It is crucial to recognize that shelters are not, by any measure, meant to be permanent solutions, and they cannot solve the problem of widespread houselessness.
“The shelter provides a Band-Aid, and it’s always, always, always, always — and I wish people would understand this — it’s just temporary,” Austin said.
This is why BOSS focuses on self-sufficiency, equipping the residents of its shelters with the skills and knowledge they will need by introducing them to the systems that make the modern United States tick. Case managers help residents secure things such as medical cards and bus passes and then teach them to use these things, building such competencies step-by-step and checking in with residents every day to ensure they are ready to navigate society independently by the time they leave.
It is crucial to recognize that shelters are not, by any measure, meant to be permanent solutions, and they cannot solve the problem of widespread houselessness.
UC Berkeley social worker Ari Neulight, who provides support to individuals who are at People’s Park, on campus and in South Berkeley more generally, also highlighted the temporary nature of these shelters. “Shelters are never really, per se, a solution to housing,” Neulight said. “When it works the best it can, it’s a stabilizing opportunity with wraparound services that support folks around next steps.”
Neulight, however, was quick to add a caveat. “When it works best. In many cases, it’s not that,” he said.
It is crucial to recognize that shelters in their current form are far from perfect. One common complaint is that the sobriety requirements imposed in some shelters keep the people who need help from seeking it. As I learned writing the previous essay in this series, addiction is a serious problem that arises out of real-life suffering. It should be considered with compassion and empathy; telling people who experience houselessness to “just quit” is not constructive when they are dependent on narcotics or alcohol.
Austin, however, argues that sobriety requirements keep shelters a conducive space. “If you have a lot of people that are living in the shelters, and you got a lot of people that you don’t know that are living side by side, there have to be some rules and regulations,” she said.
For Austin, these rules also put people in the frame of mind they need to be in to get back on their feet.
“What we’re trying to do, and I think most shelters try to do, is we’re trying to set them up for success, not for failure,” Austin said.
However, sobriety is not the only rigid rule shelters have in place that hinders the houseless community from seeking help. There are many others that make shelters inaccessible to those who need them most. For instance, the New West Berkeley 24-hour emergency shelter on Grayson Street has 40 units of recreational vehicle, or RV, parking spaces for people living in mobile homes. However, advocate and volunteer Lisa Teague claims that vehicles have to be registered for these parking spaces to be used and that people who are houseless typically do not have the money for that. Consequently, this additional space does not do much good for many of the people who need it the most. This is the paradox of many shelters: In seeking to create conducive spaces for people who are houseless, they shut these individuals out of these spaces, leaving the houseless community with nothing at all.
Moreover, shelters are not a solution for houselessness because it is at times unclear whether some of them are even meant to keep people off of the streets. Teague voiced her concerns about shelters seemingly designed to leave bed spaces open to allow legal sweeping of homeless encampments. In particular, she expressed her skepticism about the shelter on Grayson Street: “They say they’re keeping it open for people during sweeps, but they turned some people from Seabreeze (an encampment) away,” she alleged.
This is the paradox of many shelters: In seeking to create conducive spaces for people who are houseless, they shut these individuals out of these spaces, leaving the houseless community with nothing at all.
To be truly effective, therefore, shelters must stay true to their intended objectives: providing temporary respite to houseless people so that they are able to seek out permanent housing. This means, first and foremost, that they must be accessible to the people who need them the most — and this should include those struggling with issues such as substance abuse or those who might lack certain pieces of documentation.
Perhaps, though, Berkeley has already taken a step in the right direction. In 2018, a low-barrier shelter sponsored by the city of Berkeley, the STAIR Center, opened its doors. It imposes neither curfews nor sobriety requirements on its residents, and people who are houseless are not separated from their partners or pets when they check in. This makes it far more appealing to people who experience houselessness, who were previously deterred by the many restrictions that shelters traditionally foist upon their residents.
Yet, the STAIR Center’s capacity has limits. While it plays a crucial role as a model for other shelters in Berkeley, it certainly cannot single-handedly provide refuge to the city’s houseless population. Other shelters in Berkeley might, perhaps, consider shifting to low-barrier models while preserving order by making less inhibitive requests of their inhabitants, such as putting in place measures such as quiet hours to maintain conducive environments instead of banning alcohol and narcotics altogether. They could also consider creating separate wings for those still struggling with addiction, as to still provide these people with safe places that can help them recover and return to sobriety.
Shelters undoubtedly serve an important purpose in providing people with a temporary space in which they can get back on their feet, and the opening of the STAIR Center is certainly a good way to begin tackling the issue of houselessness. However, even setting all of their flaws aside, shelters for the houseless are far from being a solution to houselessness in Berkeley; the real crux lies in the lack of affordable permanent housing available, and much more must be done to ensure that there is a large enough supply of affordable housing for all. This change, to a large extent, begins in City Hall and the hearts and minds of the Berkeley community.