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As winter comes to an end, temporary shelters close and hundreds head back out to life on the street

When winter comes, Bay Area cities open temporary shelters to keep unhoused residents warm and dry. But, as winter comes to an end, these shelters close down. In Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco about 500 homeless people will be back on the streets.

Dorothy Day, in Berkeley is one of these shelters. It’s set to close for the year this Sunday.

On one of the last evenings the shelter is open, a man named Kermit Camel holds an umbrella for himself and his wife Gloria.

Gloria and Kermit have been staying at this shelter all winter — almost the entire time they’ve been homeless since they lost their place four months ago.

Gloria works as a personal care assistant and Kermit works as a grocery clerk. It’s hard with those wages to afford a spot in the East Bay, where rents have risen 40-50 percent since 2012.

Gloria says it’s that first deposit on a new place that they can’t manage to save up. They don’t have a plan for this Sunday when the shelter closes down, so they probably will be out on the street, she says.

The same is likely true for the other 90 guests that sleep here — most of whom were regulars all winter.

Sean O’Connor also stayed at Dorothy Day most nights this winter. I met him nearby at a free breakfast kitchen. He’s a volunteer there, cleaning trays, mopping floors.

“I just like something to fill my time,” he says.

O’Connor is worried about the shelter closing, although it sounds like mostly for everyone else’s sake, rather than his own.

“It’s going to be a lot of people on the streets, sleeping in some doorway and in front of some business,” he says.

In cities across the country, thousands of people who spent the winter indoors will be turned out to the street right around the same time.

David Stegman is the executive director of Dorothy Day. He says this particular shelter takes care of nearly one-tenth of Berkeley’s unhoused population.

“Over here you have a thousand people on the street every night,” says Stegman. “The emergency shelter is a stopgap measure to not only get people off the street but, in this facility, to be able to connect them with bettering their lives. I mean that’s the whole difference.”

This year, Dorothy Day was different from an average winter shelter. The city-owned building is not used for anything else during the day, which means administrators can bring in services for the guests during that time.

Stegman calls this a “game changer.”

The Berkeley free clinic comes to the shelter to provide basic healthcare, they serve two meals a day, they’ve got storage and most importantly, they bring in agencies that connect people to permanent housing.

Just yesterday, three people got into housing after working with service providers at Dorothy Day all winter.

But, staff worry that when the shelter closes, a lot of the guests they’ve been working with will go back to square one — out of touch until next winter, if ever.

The progress they made could be lost.

Bob Whalen, who manages the shelter, has one particular man on his mind who’s working with the Berkeley Health and Human Services team to get moved up the list for housing.

“But, he was with us last year and he moved up on the list, and then he got lost, and now he’s back,” says Whalen.

Which raises the question: why can’t Dorothy Day— and other winter shelters — stay open all year round?

Jacqueline McCormick, senior advisor to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín says they “would give anything to be able to keep that place open longer, but we've got limited funding.”

McCormick says the space costs about $20,000 per month, which breaks down to about $30 per person, per night. The city is developing a new navigation center, which is like a shelter with more services. It’s also building new permanent supportive housing.

In fact, the plan for the Dorothy Day building is eventually to turn it into affordable housing.

McCormick says she’s as frustrated as anyone with the city’s powerlessness in the face of the homeless crisis.

Alameda county’s homeless population grew by 39 percent from 2015 to 2017. Meanwhile federal funding has shrunk by 80 percent over the last 30 years. So, localities are struggling to find new sources of revenue.

“We're doing all we can to fill potholes, and we're doing the best we can with the little bit we have,” says McCormick.

She worries the homelessness crisis will become intractable as long as cities are tasked with solving it on their own.

“It gets to a point where if you don’t start tapping it now you’re never going to be able to address it because it’s just getting too big,” says McCormick.

Last year, right before Dorothy Day closed down for the season, an anonymous private donor put up the money to keep it open an extra two months.

Whalen says there’s an inkling of hope somebody will find a way to keep the shelter open past April 15, but as that date approaches his hope diminishes.

Shelters aren’t a solution — certainly not a better one than the kind of permanent housing they’ll soon build in this space.

But, they make a world of difference. A man who introduced himself as Hector tells me what it’ll mean to be back sleeping on the streets.

“The more that you’re out there, the more that you have negative contact with the police, neighbors,” says Hector. “You’re living on the streets, so wherever you decide to lay, it’s got to be somewhere where no one’s going to bother you, no one’s going to harass you, where the cops don’t feel like you’ve got to be off the streets.”

“There’s a whole other list of people outside. We’re the fortunate ones in here,” he says.

Since he arrived at Dorothy Day, Hector’s been working with city staff to get into housing. He says there are a lot of applications — you have to qualify for this in order to get that, and you can’t get that until you’ve qualified for this ...

“I’ve been looking for housing for over seven years,” he says, “I’ve applied for every low-income housing, every Section 8, every waitlist — I don’t fit in the criteria.”

Ultimately it just comes down to the fact that the permanent housing spots are so scarce, the city has to prioritize the oldest and the worst-off.

Hector says he’s looking ahead to the next option after Dorothy Day closes, but everything is full. So, his plan for housing is “hurry up and wait.”

For right now, it’s “back to the streets.”

As I weave between people’s mats on the floor, on my way to leave the shelter, a few guests ask when my radio story will air. I tell them next week.

“It’s too late,” one of them says. “You should have run it last month.”

He’s right, it’s probably too late. But, even last month it would have been too late.

For a lot of people who are homeless right now, the city and state and country are all too late.