Sept. News: Homelessness Updates, Districts 1 & 2 Community Meeting & More

Dear Neighbor,

As you may know, our Health Officer recently issued a health order requiring proof of vaccination for individuals age 12 and older to enter certain indoor businesses. Last Tuesday, the City Council unanimously voted to require City employees to be vaccinated. I have been an advocate for both of these measures and will continue to support steps to prioritize our community’s public health. Vaccines are our best defense against the pandemic.

Please SAVE THE DATE for a Drop-In Community Meeting with Councilmember Terry Taplin (District 2) and myself:

Districts 1 & 2 Drop-In Community Meeting
Sat., Sept. 25, 12-2 p.m.

Meadow in front of Hidden Cafe
Strawberry Creek Park

In this newsletter:

Outreach, Clean Up and Fencing of University/I-80 Freeway Areas

If you’ve visited the marina or used the I-80 freeway at University Avenue in the last month, you can see that the area across from Seabreeze Café (Seabreeze encampment) and the freeway underpass (Downstairs encampment) have been cleared and fenced off with temporary chain-link fencing by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans).

CalTrans is in the process of installing permanent wrought-iron fencing in the underpass area formerly occupied by the Downstairs encampment, and a permanent treatment to the western Seabreeze side is under consideration. 

A CalTrans crew cleans up debris from the University/I-80 freeway underpass on Aug. 9.

Freeway Encampments Pose Fire and Other Life Safety Risks

Over the years, these freeway encampments have been the source of numerous emergency calls for service. Fires of various types and sizes comprised nearly half of 66 calls for service to the area over the seven-month period from January through July 2021, according to a report from our Fire Chief. Recently, firefighters extinguished a two-acre vegetation fire at McLaughlin State Park resulting from an encampment, which was preceded by an encampment fire at the University/I-80 underpass three days earlier. In a July 2021 memo to the Mayor, Fire Chief Abraham Roman wrote: “While there are minimal structures and population in the area, I do have an ever-increasing concern with the spread of encampment fire into the vegetation areas. Given the perfect alignment of wind speed, direction and low relative humidity, a fire could be a significant risk to more densely populated urban core areas of the city.” Previously, in May 2020, an inspection report identified 11 California Fire Code and other violations at the freeway encampments. Aside from fire risk, the freeway location puts residents at particular risk for serious injury or death, such as when a driver under suspicion for driving under the influence crashed into the Seabreeze encampment.

Outreach Conducted Over Three Months, with 50 Individuals In Hotel Rooms or Shelter

As I have written before, it has taken the alignment of state, county, and city resources and staff to develop safe alternative shelter for individuals residing at the CalTrans right-of-way. Over the last six months, the Governor’s Office, the Alameda County Office of Homeless Care and Coordination, and the City of Berkeley have coordinated to make hotel rooms and shelter space available to individuals sheltering at the University/I-80 encampments.  

  • 48 people have moved into hotel rooms from freeway encampments, including Seabreeze and Ashby/Shellmound, and will receive housing navigation services with a goal of transitioning into permanent housing within six months. This represents a significant share of the individuals previously sheltering in dangerous proximity to the freeway.
  • 35 people from the freeway encampments were offered shelter at the Horizon Transitional Village, a 24-hour shelter located at 742 Grayson with capacity for up to 50 people. Only two people from the freeway encampments accepted this shelter offer, which tells us that a congregate shelter is not a good fit for this population. (As of mid-September, a total of 47 people have moved into the Horizon shelter from locations throughout the City.)

These stats speak to the significant effort undertaken to provide a hotel room or a shelter space to chronically homeless individuals at the freeway encampments. Our City staff maintained detailed records of their outreach and made a good-faith effort to connect with all individuals residing at the University/I-80 encampments over the course of their three months of outreach (including nearly every business day from June 28 through July 22). I also want to acknowledge the reality that outreach to this population is extremely challenging; many live with deep-rooted trauma and/or disabling mental health conditions.

Litigation Between Homeless Advocacy Group Where Do We Go Berkeley versus CalTrans Could Lead to Temporary Reopening of Seabreeze Encampment

It has come to my attention that there are 11 individuals identified by the homeless advocacy group Where Do We Go Berkeley who say they either did not receive any outreach (eight people) or who say the offer of a hotel room or shelter space was not adequate due to mental health needs (three people). These 11 people relocated to the Ashby/Shellmound area after the closure of the University/I-80 encampments. Where Do We Go Berkeley (on behalf of the 11 plaintiffs) is currently involved in litigation against CalTrans in federal district court to seek a temporary reopening of the Seabreeze encampment, which they argue is safer than the Ashby/Shellmound area, until alternative housing acceptable to plaintiffs can be provided. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 23. I’m sharing this update so our community is aware that there is a legal risk that the area across from Seabreeze could potentially be repopulated. I have been in communication with our City staff to ensure that we continue to work towards housing options that would be suitable for the 11 plaintiffs.

Safe RV Parking Site to Open In Two Weeks

By the end of September, the City will finally launch an off-street safe RV parking program, a priority of mine since the beginning of my Council term. The RV safe parking site will be located in the parking lot of the Horizon Transitional Village shelter located at 742 Grayson St. Designed to be as low barrier as possible, the safe RV parking program will provide temporary parking accommodations for up to 40 households living in their RVs.

The site will have a fence for security, but no night-time curfew. Pets will be accommodated, but not minor children. (Families with children are immediately referred to family shelter beds.) Here are some additional details of the program:

Photo: Eric Panzer

  • Water will be available for hand-washing, along with portable toilets;
  • For guests who prefer to use their own septic systems, the City is creating a voucher program for vehicles to dump their wastewater at a nearby off-site licensed dump station;
  • While there will be no electrical hook-ups (due to cost and time constraints), guests may operate a personal generator;
  • Charging for personal devices will be available at an on-site office.

The safe RV parking program is designed to address the high concentration of RVs currently found in the Gilman District (north of Gilman and west of San Pablo). The safe site has more than enough space to accommodate the number of RVs currently in the Gilman District. Thereafter, the City will begin enforcement of new four-hour parking restrictions on certain streets north of Gilman and west of San Pablo on a pilot basis, with a possibility of expanding or altering this zone after a trial period. You can read more about the safe RV parking program HERE.

Highlights from Staff Memo on Homelessness

Last week, City staff prepared a memo on homelessness in response to questions from some community members. You can read the full memo HERE, and I’ve pasted some highlights below.

“We know from decades of research and practice that the single most important predictor of homelessness is a region’s housing prices.”

Pathways Navigation Center is located on Second Street.

  • “Given the astronomical increases in prices seen across the Bay Area, and in Berkeley in particular, it is not surprising that Berkeley has seen a recent surge in homelessness, which is up 33 percent since 2015.”
  • “All in all, our services have successfully rehoused 485 people since 2018.”
  • “To comply with guidance from the CDC, which advised communities nationwide to not clear homeless encampments without first making offers of individual rooms to every resident, we paused our efforts to close even the most dangerous and entrenched encampments. The pandemic also created serious challenges to the City’s enforcement capacities, as many staff were forced to work from home and some of our outreach staff contracted Covid and were unable to work.” 
  • “…as housing prices continue to grow, more and more of our neighbors are losing their housing and winding up on our streets every week.” 
  • “The City Council approved roughly $900,000 in new funding to create an Encampment Response Team, which will increase our dedicated presence addressing encampments and their impacts from our currently budgeted one day per week to a target of up to three days per week.”

Debt Forgiveness for Unpaid Utility Bills

Do you have an unpaid balance on your PG&E bill? Sign up soon for a new state program to help reduce up to $8,000 in unpaid balances on your bill—and keep your power on after Sept. 30, the last day of a statewide ban on disconnecting gas and electricity.

If you have unpaid bills of at least $500 that are at least three months overdue, the program only requires you to pay your current usage going forward for the next 12 months.

With each on-time payment, 1/12th of your past bill is forgiven. Your power stays on and up to $8,000 of your debt will be cleared.

East Bay Community Energy and PG&E residential customers should sign up before Sept. 30 by calling 1-800-743-5000. Learn more about this plan, which is known as the Arrearage Management Plan, on the PG&E Payment Assistance webpage or visit EBCE Energy Bill Assistance Options.