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Berkeley Food and Housing Project: Working to Keep Up with the Need

By Lydia Gans
Friday January 06, 2012 - 01:08:00 PM

The Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP), which has been feeding and housing poor and homeless people since 1970 is finding its resources increasingly stretched. Since the economic crisis began to unfold there has been a steady increase in the number of people needing services. 

The food program, long called Quarter Meal, provides sit down or take out meals weekdays at Trinity Methodist church on Bancroft. According to BFHP director Terrie Light, “Since May of this year the amount of people coming in for our feeding program went up over 20%. Comparing this year to last year, every month, there's been 20% to 30% difference. Some weeks were pretty alarming, so many people snaking out of the building around the corner coming in for a hot meal.” 

The pressure on the mens and womens overnight shelters is ever more intense requiring a new approach to the shelter program as well as increased services, staff, and funding. In the past, the shelter meant in by a specified time in the evening, out by 8 in the morning. A person could be sure of a bed up to some maximum number of days, usually 30 days. It was assumed that whatever problems forced them to stay in the shelter could be solved in time to get them out. Advice, help in the form of case management was available. The expectation was if they wanted housing and they really hustled, with help they should be able to find something in that time. But with the economic crisis, things began to change. 

Terrie Light explains, “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.” Having to choose between rent and food is causing more and more people to fall into homelessness. “Every night now the shelters are full. Zero vacancies, emergency beds are full. Often put out cots and they get full.” Many homeless people are sleeping in their cars or in the street. 

The overriding need of the clients coming to BFHP is getting into affordable housing. Some have lost their jobs or have reduced incomes. A federal Homeless Prevention Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP) has kept families in Alameda county from becoming homeless but the program ends this June. This will mean a new influx of people needing help. 

A large number of the clients are not working. They are people on fixed incomes, seniors, disabled or medically fragile and on SSI or various entitlement programs for which funding is being cut. At the same time rents in the area are going up. As a result a large proportion of the program resources are now devoted to finding affordable housing. “We're really focused now on helping people find housing.” Terrie Light says. “So we have housing specialists that actually go talk to land lords, drive people to apartments, help them fill out applications, to advocate with landlords for deals or work for part of their rent.” Connie Green is the shelter supervisor at the men's shelter. She talked about the difficulties. Rents in the single room hotels (SRO's) which used to be the least expensive are all going up. “We had a landlord who had over 500 units between August and September has 6 units now. The cheapest being a studio at 1150 a month.” And landlords hesitate to rent to people with fixed incomes. This landlord told her that he would never rent to anybody with a subsidized income. “He said 'why rent so somebody with low income. If something comes up there's an emergency they're going to buy food before they pay the rent.'” 

It has also become clear that 30 nights in an overnight shelter is not enough. Besides taking longer just to find new housing, clients need information and help in accessing other resources so now the project needs more staff to provide client services. The focus of the program has changed. Connie Green explained “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. There is a housing clinic available at Trinity all day long. If a person is jobless, they are referred to an employment program. Connie Green mentions Rubicon, or St. Vincent de Paul for example. “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.” The women's center also has case workers to help women become independent and allows them to stay longer if necessary. For people who are mentally challenged case workers try to get them into living situations where they can get the assistance they need. 

Last Spring the project started a special program for veterans. Terrie Light tells of applying to the veterans administration for funding noting that statistics show that California has 20% of the nation's homeless veterans, many of them, living in the Bay Area. Given the history of the anti war movement here, “I have a feeling”, she says, “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. … Our program is called Welcome Home Berkeley. ... Kriss Worthington said at dedication how this was healing for the city to be able to reach out to vets.” 

The program is housed in the the veteran's building but it is separate from the men's shelter. It 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. 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 6 move out into housing.” 

I dropped in one afternoon and found three of the vets there. All lost their housing because they were not able to keep up their rent. They are trying to find work. And all three are applying for their veterans benefits, a process which is taking an inordinately long time. Raymond Jackson served in the Navy during the Vietnam era. When he got out he went back to his job a U.C. but he is no longer working. “I'm 64 years old,” he says, “and things happen. I'm working on getting a pension from the Navy. … it takes a while, like a year to process.” Willie Robinson 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 spent 16 years, primarily in Saudi Arabia. He is 45 years old, was a diesel mechanic in the military and is looking for work. And he is applying to the VA for disability benefits for PTSD. He explains that “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 process of applying for benefits. “... the building on 14th and Clay streets in Oakland. (You start) on the 11th floor where you initially pick (a)veteran's personnel that's going to represent you – 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 - (you wait) - then go to 3rd floor they take a look to see if you have a legitimate claim - (you wait) may have to send back east, to find out your records to verify you were in conflict. “I produced all my military records, that I was fired on while in the war situation, etc. I'm still waiting.” It's been almost a year and, like the others, he's worried that his allotted time in the shelter will run out and he could again be homeless. 

Running the many BFHP programs takes a large and dedicated staff. Terrie Light talks about staffing. The “increase of services requires more staffing - not just checking into shelter and getting a towel and a couple of sheets. Helping people find housing, figure out what to do with their children. How to get a job and all things to help them in their homelessness. We give our staff oodles of training ... We have a whole component of training for staff – new employee orientation, to case management training to housing case management.” They have over 60 people, half full time and the rest part time and on-call. 

“And we have had to do fund raising to do that”, she adds. “A lot (comes) from the city of Berkeley – we're the biggest grantee of the city of Berkeley - we work with a lot of different parts of the city. We get quite a bit of federal money, some through the city and some directly, a modest amount of county money and absolutely no state money. About 30% comes from private donations and foundations.”