UC Berkeley to offer housing to homeless in People’s Park

In a partnership unique in American higher education, UC Berkeley and city and nonprofit collaborators unveiled plans Wednesday to provide interim housing at a converted motel, as well as meals and social services, to unsheltered people sleeping in the iconic People’s Park.

The announcement marks a major step forward in the four-year journey to repurpose the park — one of California’s most contested pieces of land with a half-century history of protests and conflict — into space for badly needed housing for students and low-income community members. About 60% of the 2.8-acre park will remain open green space, and a memorial to its storied history will be erected.

But before construction begins this summer, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ had pledged that housing and a daytime gathering place would be offered to those living in the park — a number that fluctuates but is thought to currently number about 55.

On Wednesday, the plans to do so were detailed by representatives from the campus, the city of Berkeley and local nonprofits. The city and campus have hammered out a deal to lease 42 rooms for 18 months at the Rodeway Inn for those living in the park. The accommodations will feature a recently remodeled private room, kitchenette and bathroom; linens and toiletries; housekeeping services; and access to laundry facilities.

A local nonprofit, Abode Services, will offer residents daily meal service, access to healthcare and counseling, transportation support and assistance in finding permanent housing. The city will cover the costs of the lease and nonprofit services for 12 months, using a $4.7-million state grant earmarked to help people living in encampments find safe and stable housing. UC Berkeley has committed $2.2 million to cover the last six months.

“We are grateful for and humbled by the coming together of this new alliance in support of a new People’s Park,” Christ said in a statement. “Together we will provide a true win-win-win for our students, for unhoused members of our community and for all of the residents of the city of Berkeley.”

In addition, the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley plans to establish a daytime drop-in center on its property. Another local nonprofit, Village of Love, will provide meals, mental health counseling, shelter referrals, assistance in securing ID cards and other documents, public benefits and housing to needy community members. Those services will be funded by a two-year, $500,000 grant from UC Berkeley and $250,000 from the city.

Feb. 2021 aerial view of People’s Park in Berkeley.

(Jane Tyska / Getty Images)

“We’re proud to honor the legacy of People’s Park and better meet the needs of our community through an effort that’s deeply reflective of Berkeley’s values,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in a statement. “This partnership will put a roof over the heads of those living in People’s Park, instead of simply pushing them from one neighborhood to another.”

A study by the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy led to the idea for a daytime drop-in center after researchers interviewed unhoused community members at the park and found a strong desire for a safe place to rest and receive services.

Construction of the student housing units, which will include 1,100 beds, is set to begin this summer. Christ has called the severe shortage of student housing one of the biggest threats to the university’s long-term future — and was a factor in litigation that is threatening to force Berkeley to cut its in-person enrollment this fall by more than 2,600 students.

The 100 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly unhoused and low-income community members will be developed and operated by a local nonprofit, Resources for Community Development. Supportive services will be provided by LifeLong Medical Care.

But when the park is fenced off and closed once construction begin, it’s unclear whether protesters will rally to take back the space as they have in the past. When the project was first announced in 2018, some of the unhoused people in the park welcomed it while others objected, saying it would obliterate the space’s rich history and destroy the community bonds forged over communal feedings, gardening and cultural events.

The park burst into the national spotlight in 1969, when hundreds of people hauled sod, trees and flowers to a scruffy lot that the university intended to build on and proclaimed it their own People’s Park. When UC fenced the public out a few weeks later, more than 6,000 protesters marched there and were pushed back by law enforcement using tear gas and buckshot. The bloody battle left one student dead, a person blinded and scores of others injured and arrested.

Students and activists at UC Berkeley.

Students and activists at UC Berkeley rallying in May 1969 against proposed construction at People’s Park.

(Garth Eliassen / Getty Images)

Ari Neulight, UC Berkeley’s homeless outreach coordinator who has worked in the park since 2017, said mixed feelings about the space remain today. Many people he works with in the park say their two main desires are safe and affordable housing and a drop-in center for rest, food and services.

But there’s no guarantee that meeting those needs will defuse all opposition to the housing project.

“The park is a complicated, contested space that everyone has an opinion about,” Neulight said. “No matter what happens at the park, there will always be a range of opinions.”

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