City of Berkeley & Its Unhoused Population during the Pandemic

photo Jesse Arreguin

Mayor Jesse Arreguin

On April 10th, City of Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin held a virtual town hall meeting during which City staff discussed measures they were taking to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 among vulnerable community members, including unhoused residents.

During the meeting, City Manager Williams-Ridley and Mayor Arreguin mentioned a number of things that the City is doing to support the unhoused population. The City and the State of California have supplied 18 recreational vehicles  to house the most at-risk people within the unhoused community: seniors, those with disabilities and those with chronic health issues. A residence that has been recently refurbished can house an additional four people. All of these locations will be staffed and offer some services.

City staff reported that all shelters in Berkeley are still open, but many are full and unable to adhere to important CDC guidelines, link here.  In response to this, the City is opening a new shelter specifically for those who are already living in shelters; the goal being to improve social distancing practices within shelters and ensure that transmission is not intensified in these locations. The City is also trying to improve the tents that unhoused people are living in, so that tents are more durable and can have supplies stored in them.

At the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, 22 handwashing stations were installed throughout Berkeley as well as a number of port-a-potties. A map of all stations can be found here. Additionally, locations that offer showers have expanded their hours. With regard to testing, no unhoused person has tested positive for COVID-19 yet, but the City is trying to address social distancing and other issues before someone does. The testing site in Berkeley is by appointment only, but prioritizes the unhoused population along with other at-risk groups.

The City of Berkeley is collaborating with Oakland, Emeryville and Alameda County to also house people in hotels. The number of rooms was not disclosed at the meeting, but the group will prioritize the most vulnerable as well as people who have tested positive for, or have been exposed to, COVID-19. The City is partnering with Lifelong Medical Care, Bay Area Community Services and other mental health professionals to go to encampments, specifically by Interstate-80, to provide health services and work with people living there.

In addition to expanding services and shelter for the greater than 1000 unhoused persons in Berkeley, the City is working to prevent more people from becoming homeless. The City enacted a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions, so that no person or business can be evicted for not being able to pay rent due to the effects of COVID19. Moreover, a housing retention program has been established to provide one time grants to tenants who need assistance link here.

San Francisco has already experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 in their largest homeless shelter link here. It will be critically important that Berkeley incorporate the lessons learned by San Francisco to hone its plan for isolating and testing people should an outbreak occur among the unhoused population here. The LWVBAE Action Team observers will continue to monitor the situation in the coming weeks.

–Kai Kai Spencer

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