As the COVID-19 infection rate rises in the East Bay, promises made by city officials are falling short.


[BERKELEY, CA, April 20] Though it has been more than three weeks since the “shelter at home” order and nearly a month since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, there has been little tangible progress made by the City of Berkeley to protect those who are experiencing homelessness. Volunteers and activists from ten different nonprofit organizations in Berkeley—collectively known as the Berkeley Outreach Coalition (BOC)—have filled the void by working to address the acute needs of homeless people during the pandemic.


During weekly outreach efforts, BOC volunteers continue to see people sleeping on sidewalks or sharing damaged and undersized tents therefore being unable to self isolate or shelter in place. People begging for access to food and drinking water. They have seen open and infected wounds, people who are very sick but whose symptoms do not match the strict criteria needed for a hotel voucher, and entire encampments without basic information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  


The city has indicated their efforts to purchase several trailers and create temporary shelters for unsheltered residents exposed to COVID-19, provide hand washing stations in encampments, and collaborate with Caltrans to clean garbage along the I-80 corridor.  However, the City has fallen weeks behind in the implementation of shelter referral protocol and has lagged in addressing basic CDC recommendations like a moratorium on homeless encampment evictions. 


“Evicting encampments causes immense emotional, physical, and financial harm. It’s also unconstitutional and violates the CDC’s explicit guidance unless adequate housing is offered. The City of Berkeley must commit to a moratorium on homeless sweeps, and focus resources on providing urgently needed services instead.” - Heather Freinkel, Homeless Action Center


Recognizing the lack of referral organizations in Berkeley, volunteers at the Berkeley Free Clinic have recently opted to become providers in Alameda County’s “Operation Comfort”, allowing them to make referrals for social distancing and isolation hotel placements. Despite fulfilling their promise to work with Lifelong, BACS, and HOTT, City Of Berkeley officials have been less enthusiastic in assisting outreach groups involved with non-referral type care. 


The city’s prevention efforts against COVID-19 for unsheltered residents are inadequate as well. Despite the 28 handwashing stations placed by the city, many unhoused residents still do not have access to handwashing stations and porta potties while those that currently exist are completely underserviced. These areas include the Bancroft and 4th St. RV camp, Seabreeze encampment, Gilman encampment, and the encampment on 8th and Harrison. As a result, volunteer groups that are part of the BOC have been forced to address those acute needs. The Berkeley Free Clinic has been providing homemade hand-washing stations and has been working with Berkeley Copwatch to build drinking water stations. “Where Do We Go” Berkeley is currently providing all porta potties on the I-80 corridor encampments using funds from a private “Go-Fund-Me”. 


“We are working desperately to prevent the spread of a virus that we know we cannot stop. The City of Berkeley has the resources to equip our clients with what they need to protect themselves. Their inaction will literally cost lives.” - Jace, Berkeley Free Clinic


The Berkeley Outreach Coalition has been a vocal advocate for the necessity of emergency preventative care, harm reduction, and recognizing basic human rights during a pandemic. However, despite giving no definite answers on when and where help will arrive, staff at the City Manager’s office are instead requesting these volunteer outreach workers provide data to the city on their outreach areas, services, and schedules to prevent an “overlap of services”. Coalition members have serious concerns that this data would be used as an excuse to abstain service to areas they deemed were in an overlap.


The Coalition prepared a list of demands to the City Of Berkeley to begin providing adequate services to all of Berkeley’s unhoused immediately. The demands demonstrate that city officials are either working too slowly or failing entirely to provide these services. Many services and initiatives have been promised by the city in writing or have been claimed to be completed on public record, but we have yet to see these promises fulfilled.


One incident referenced in the list of demands is particularly disturbing:  


“The City of Berkeley needs to ensure that emergency EMT/Fire services respond to calls by unhoused residents and provide people the care to which they are entitled. This demand comes in direct response to a recent and documented event where 911 personnel refused to transport a resident to the hospital. This negligence is unacceptable.” 


The City has not demonstrated a coherent plan for the more than 1,000 homeless residents of Berkeley during the massive COVID-19 outbreak. Activists and on-the-ground outreach workers are pushing back on the narrative created by city officials that there is an effective strategy being implemented. With basic necessities like food, water, hygiene supplies, tents, and medical supplies being almost entirely supplied by local non-profit groups and volunteers, outreach workers are demanding that Berkeley officials do more for the unhoused community in order to better protect all residents of Berkeley.


[Formed on February 29 2020, The Berkeley Outreach Coalition is a collective effort by Berkeley based outreach groups:  Berkeley Copwatch, Berkeley Free Clinic, Berkeley Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution, Consider the Homeless, East Bay Angels, East Bay Community Law Center, Homeless Action Center, Suitcase Clinic, Where Do We Go, Berkeley?]

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