Berkeley Food and Housing Food Project Faces New Challenges in Overcoming Homelessness in Berkeley

“Every night now the shelters are full,” Terrie Light said. “Zero vacancies. Emergency beds are full. We often put out cots, and then they get full.” When the overnight shelters in Berkeley are overloaded, many homeless people are forced to sleep in their cars or on the street.

Patrick Lewis, Willie Robinson and Raymond Jackson (from left to right) are homeless veterans who live in the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s new veterans’ program. Many military veterans return home from overseas after serving their country, only to end up living on the streets because housing and jobs are in scarce supply. Lydia Gans photos

 

by Lydia Gans

 

The Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP), one of the East Bay’s major homeless programs, was founded in 1970, and does exactly what the name implies by providing food and housing for people in need.

The food part is relatively simple. BFHP workers provide sit-down meals or take-outs several days a week at two Berkeley locations. Their well-known Quarter Meal is provided free to all comers at Trinity United Methodist Church on 2362 Bancroft Way in Berkeley. Free lunches are offered to homeless women and children at their Women’s Shelter, located at 2140 Dwight Way.

The housing part is complicated and getting more so every day. It started way back in the mid-1980s with an overnight shelter where homeless people were admitted in by a specified time in the evening, and had to leave the shelter by 8:00 in the morning. A person could be sure of a bed up to some maximum number of days, usually 30 days.

At that time, when the relatively new societal problem of long-term homelessness was first being recognized, it was assumed that whatever problems caused homelessness could be solved in time to get them into permanent housing. Advice, housing referrals, and help, in the form of case management, was available.

The expectation back then was that if shelter residents wanted housing and they really hustled, they should be able to find something before their shelter stay was up, with help from BFHP staff. But with the economic crisis creating ever greater numbers of homeless people, and overwhelming the shelter system in the East Bay, things began to change.

According to BFHP Executive Director Terrie Light, service providers in Berkeley began to notice a steady increase in the number of people coming for food, beginning in 2007. “Some weeks were pretty alarming,” she said. Meanwhile, Light added, “Some of our donations were shrinking and we saw people coming into the agency that were first-time homeless.”

This increase in the need for services “is an indicator that people are on the edge.” Being compelled to choose between paying the rent and buying food is causing more and more people to fall into homelessness.

“Every night now the shelters are full,” Light said. “Zero vacancies. Emergency beds are full. We often put out cots — and then they get full.”

The overloading of the shelter capacity is occurring at the men’s shelter in the Veteran’s Building and also at the women’s shelter. Many homeless people are forced to sleep in their cars or on the street.

The overriding need of the clients coming to the BFHP is getting into affordable housing. Some people have lost their jobs or have reduced incomes. Most of the clients are not working. They are people on fixed incomes, seniors, and disabled or medically fragile people who are living on decreasing SSI benefits or entitlement programs for which funding is being cut.

At the same time as lifeline benefits are being cut, rents in the Bay Area are going up. As a result, a large proportion of BFHP’s resources are now devoted to finding affordable housing.

“We’re really focused now on helping people find housing.” Terrie Light said. “So we have housing specialists that actually go talk to landlords, drive people to apartments, help them fill out applications, and advocate with landlords for deals or work for part of their rent.”

Connie Green, shelter supervisor at the men’s overnight shelter, described the difficulties of finding housing. Rents in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels — which used to be the least expensive housing option for people with extremely low incomes — are all going up. Also, the area’s growing poverty rates means that an increasing number of very poor people are competing for the limited housing stock, resulting in a severe shortage of affordable housing in the East Bay.

Green said, “We had a landlord who had over 500 units between August and September. He has 6 units now—the cheapest being a studio at $1150 a month.”

Landlords hesitate to rent to people with fixed incomes. Green said that this landlord told her that he would never rent to anybody with a subsidized income. “He said, ‘Why rent to somebody with low income? If something comes up and there’s an emergency, they’re going to buy food before they pay the rent.’”

It has become clear that a stay of 30 nights in a shelter is not enough. The worsening shortage of affordable housing means it now takes longer just to find housing. Clients now need more help in accessing other resources, so the BFHP now has more staff to provide client services.

The focus of the program has changed. Green said, “This was typically a 30-day shelter and it’s changed into an interim housing model.” A person can stay longer if he or she is seriously looking for housing and works with a case manager.

A BFHP housing clinic is available at Trinity Methodist Church all day long. If a person is jobless, they are referred to an employment program at Rubicon, St. Vincent de Paul, or another agency. Green said, “If you’ve successfully done that and brought in a resume and a cover letter and a name of a job coach who we can collaborate with, you can stay longer.”

“Say Not What You Did For Your Country…” Art by San Francisco Print Collective

 

The women’s center has case workers to help women become independent and the women’s shelter also allows residents to stay longer if needed.

New program for veterans

Last spring, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project started a special program for military veterans. Terrie Light tells of applying to the Veteran’s Administration for funding, noting that statistics show that California has 20 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans, many of them living in the Bay Area.

Given the history of the anti-war movement in Berkeley, Light said, “I have a feeling we have more vets that aren’t identifying as vets because this is Berkeley. So we need to do things to let vets know we’re welcoming them.”

The new veteran’s program is called Welcome Home Berkeley. According to Light, Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said at the program’s dedication that this was “healing for the city to be able to reach out to vets.”

The program is housed in the Veteran’s Building, but it is separate from the men’s shelter located in the same building. The new veteran’s program is in an enclosed section, almost like a small apartment, with a kitchen, living room and bunks for 12 vets. They have access there all day.

“This is where they live,” Light said. “Because they’re all former military, they’re a military unit and it’s interesting how they work together, and cooperate and support each other in their search for independence. So most of the men there are looking for work, one has gone back to college at UC and the initial 12 that we started with in May already have had six move out into housing.”

I dropped in one afternoon and found three of the vets there. All had lost their housing because they were not able to keep up their rent and they are trying to find work. All three are applying for their veteran’s benefits, a process which is taking an inordinately long time.

Raymond Jackson served in the Navy during the Vietnam era. When he got out of the service, he went back to his job at the University of California, but he is no longer working. “I’m 64 years old,” he said, “and things happen. I’m working on getting a pension from the Navy. It takes a while, like a year to process.”

Another veteran, Willie Robinson, said he is applying for his benefits “for a lot of injuries.” He was denied three months ago and now is in the appeal process.

Patrick Lewis entered the military in 1980 and served for 16 years, primarily in Saudi Arabia. He was a diesel mechanic in the military, and is now looking for work. He is applying to the VA for disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lewis said, “The occupation of Saudi Arabia lasted for so long a lot of people were never recognized for the disabilities they came back to the states with.”

He launches into a description of the complicated process of applying for benefits at the Federal Building in Oakland. “You start on the 11th floor where you initially pick a veteran’s personnel that’s going to represent you,” Lewis said. “Then you go to the 12th floor where they pull all your records to find out if you have a case that should be pursued, then you go to the third floor where they take a look to see if you have a legitimate claim. Then you’re on the waiting scale and they may have to send back east, to find out your records to verify you were in conflict.”

By this time, I was wondering how he could be so calm about the arduous process. “I produced all my military records — that I was fired on while in the war situation,” he said. “I’m still waiting.” It’s been almost a year and, like the other homeless veterans, he’s worried that his allotted time in the shelter will run out and he could again be homeless.

Light said, “The increase of services requires more staffing” because helping people overcome homelessness no longer just involves checking them into the shelter and giving them bedding. The BFHP now helps people find housing, refers them to employment services, and helps figure out what to do with their children.

“We give our staff oodles of training,” said Light. “We have a whole component of training for staff — from new employee orientation, to case management training, to housing case management.”

The BFHP now employs more than 60 people, half of them full-time staff, and the rest part-time and on-call.

“And we have had to do fundraising to do that,” Light adds. “A lot (comes) from the City of Berkeley. We’re the biggest grantee of the City of Berkeley. We get quite a bit of federal money, a modest amount of county money and absolutely no state money. About 30 percent comes from private donations and foundations.”

Volunteer or Donate to BFHP

To donate, send checks to Berkeley Food and Housing Project, 2362 Bancroft Way, Berkeley CA 94704, c/o Terrie Light. Donate by credit card by going to the BFHP website at http://bfhp.org/donate or call the Development Department at (510) 649-4965, ext. 585. To volunteer, contact Volunteer Coordinator Danielle Knutson at dknutson@bfhp.org or call (510) 649-4965, ext. 506.

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