The Brave New World of Centralized Intake in Berkeley

One can’t help but notice that all this wrangling over intake forms, coordination, and “centralized intake” hasn’t managed to produce any additional low-income housing or shelter beds. Berkeley’s last low-income housing expenditures were about 15 years ago, and involved rehabbing some already existing low-income housing units.

by Carol Denney

About a year ago, a jumble of initials began to drift into conversation about Berkeley’s crisis in low-income housing and homelessness.

Nobody seemed entirely clear on what “HCRC” stood for. After scouring the town for answers, one thing is clear: Nobody is entirely clear on what “HCRC” ultimately will mean for Berkeley.

The initials are easy: “HCRC” stands for Housing Crisis Resolution Center, described as a “coordinated access system … a streamlined way for homeless people to access shelter, transitional and permanent housing and services,” according to the City of Berkeley’s website.

“Coordinated” always sounds nifty. “Streamlined” is even better. “Streamlined” is the phrase that pops up in planning circles when they want to reduce the bumps in the road for developers who get bruised if they’re obligated to interact too much with the neighborhoods near a proposed project or mingle too often with interested commissions or community groups.

This centralized intake plan is a new Housing and Urban Development requirement for getting government money for “homeless services” dollars, and the City of Berkeley wants to make sure it can qualify. But what exactly it will become is anybody’s guess right now.

The implication in the lofty wording of announcements about the project seem to imply more housing, but Berkeley’s last low-income housing expenditures were about 15 years ago, and involved rehabbing existing low-income housing at UA Homes and Erna P. Harris Court.

But the concept of one-stop services remains compelling in a town where trying to obtain food, shelter, and a place to store belongings can mean endlessly hiking hither and yon. If a single intake system enables people in need to be served better, and coordinated agencies can operate better, who could possibly object?

Especially since, according to the City of Berkeley, “by submitting this application, your Agency is agreeing to accept referrals for City of Berkeley funded services/housing exclusively from the HCRC.” And any agency coordinating with the HCRC must agree that all “intakes” will be done by HCRC staff. Raising too much fuss about the system might affect your funding.

Still, one can’t help but notice after decades of living in Berkeley, that all this wrangling over intake forms, coordination, and definitions hasn’t managed to produce any additional low-income housing or shelter beds.

Our nationwide housing crisis keeps roaring at a faster and faster pace, almost as fast as developers whip out their wallets and feed the status quo. The Bay Area’s scarce housing “opportunity sites,” once identified to a planning department, tend to become high-end condos for the wealthy.

The nationwide housing crisis keeps roaring at a faster and faster pace. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

The nationwide shortage of affordable housing continues to worsen. Yet Berkeley is producing luxury housing developments while failing to create an adequate amount of housing for low-income people. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

 

The pressure to kick out long-term and fixed-income tenants is like a powerful firehose, while the parade of high-end housing projects seems impervious to the urgency of the low-income housing crisis.

What we know for sure is the Housing Crisis Resolution Center will be in charge of all intakes and assessments regarding who needs what services, and who “qualifies” for help. It will produce interesting data and require all related agencies to do the same.

This kind of data may be useful in measuring and sizing up things in quantifiable ways, which is always powerful in funding services and programs. If you ask the right questions, and get honest answers, you can learn things, qualify for grants, guide programs, and apply funding where funding is most needed.

But the right questions, the honest answers, the best ways to get at the truth are a tricky, sticky wicket. Note the Downtown Berkeley Association’s enthusiastic abuse of a 2015 poll in which the highest of the Berkeley public’s priorities was homelessness. The poll was swiftly used by City Councilmember Linda Maio to excuse a new raft of anti-homeless laws.

The best people to evaluate a system are the people who experience it. As this project develops, it makes sense to try to make sure the people it affects most have a voice in how it works, a powerful voice so that it someday has the ability to work even better in addressing human needs with the valuable guidance of people who experience it firsthand as clients.

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