Campus & community, Campus news

Berkeley’s new daytime center opens for unhoused community

Berkeley community partners and the nonprofit Village of Love will provide services and resources for unhoused people in Berkeley, People’s Park

Village of Love staff stand for a portrait at the newly opened Sacred Rest Drop-In Center in Berkeley, Calif. on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Berkeley community partners and the nonprofit Village of Love will provide services and resources for unhoused people  from People’s Park through the newly opened Sacred Rest Daytime Drop-In Center. Village of Love founder Joey Harrison, right, stands with his staff who will run the center. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

The Berkeley community has a brand-new, 3,000-square-foot outdoor space — funded jointly by the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley — where unhoused people can go during the day to use the bathroom, grab a bite to eat, play board games, listen to music, and relax under the shade of trees and patio umbrellas.

Operated by the nonprofit Village of Love, the Sacred Rest Daytime Drop-in Center will connect people to housing resources, access to health care, therapy and many other services. The center opened last week and is on Haste street between Dana and Telegraph — on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley — just a few blocks from People’s Park.

a photo of tents in the park

People have gathered at People’s Park for decades. The new drop-in center will provide services for people who frequented the park during the day, and others in need in the area. (UC Berkeley photo by Jeremy Snowden)

Construction is scheduled to begin this summer at historic People’s Park for urgently needed UC Berkeley student housing and an open space revitalization project. The project will also include a housing facility with permanent supportive units for formerly unhoused people, and affordable housing for low-income community members.

The city and campus also partnered with the Rodeway Inn on University Avenue to provide an 18-month transitional housing program for unhoused people from the park.

UC Berkeley funded the design, site preparation and construction of the daytime drop-in center with a two-year, $500,000 campus grant and $250,000 from the city. Sacred Rest aims to provide services to people who gathered at the park during the day and to others in need in the area, said Village of Love Founder Joey Harrison, who hopes to create a place where unhoused people are not seen as clients, but as family.

“And we shower our family with love,” he said. “That is the environment we want to bring to Sacred Rest. A place that makes you feel like you’re at grandma’s house, where people are trusted and respected.”

Laron Sanders stands at the center's ramps at the drop-in center.

Village of Love manager Laron Sanders stands outside of the Sacred Rest office on June 22. As a new facility, Sanders said their priority is to build strong relationships with Berkeley’s unhoused community. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Steve Eldridge is currently unhoused, but has connected with Village of Love staff throughout the years. He said the new drop-in center is clean, welcoming and a great place to help unhoused people in the area to find a community of people who care.

“The cost of living in the Bay Area is outrageous, so a lot of people are in need right now,” said Eldridge. “To have a place like this, with people that want to help, … you can’t put a price on it.”

New data released last month by All Home, a nonprofit housing advocacy group, showed that the Bay Area’s housing crisis, during the past three years, has continued to push people onto the streets at an alarmingly high rate. According to the survey, since 2019 the number of unhoused people in the Bay Area has risen by over 8%, and Alameda County’s unhoused population alone surged by 21.5%.

Services for unhoused people are sometimes inadequate, said Harrison, who lived on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland just eight years ago.

A client plays jenga on the law at the center.

An unhoused visitor to the center plays a game of life-size Jenga while others play checkers on June 22. “That is the environment we want to bring to Sacred Rest,” said Harrison. “A place that makes you feel like you’re at grandma’s house, where people are trusted and respected.” (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

He remembers trekking back and forth from different transitional housing programs, feeling like he wasn’t being seen and working with case managers who treated him, he said, like “I was just another number.”

“I’d go in, sit down and fill out this paper, and it was like I was just some case number in their files,” he said. “It didn’t make me feel connected to the community. I didn’t feel like a person.”

Harrison founded Village of Love three years ago to counter that narrative and by working with other community partners, adding that “working with the university has been a beautiful thing.”

The space where Sacred Rest currently resides was previously used by the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley as an open field. It was transformed into a community hub for the unhoused in just a few short months, said Ralph Anderson, the church’s facilities director. Beth Thomsen, who leads the church’s outreach efforts, said services offered at the drop-in center fit into the church’s mission “to love concretely” and “to help care for our neighbors.”

“We saw that a part of our facility could be shared, and somebody already had a plan and a design for it all. It seemed like it was meant to be,” said Anderson. “We saw the partnership as a marriage. So, we put a ring on it.”

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said getting Sacred Rest up and going has been a true community collaboration that will benefit the city’s unhoused people immensely.

“I want to thank everyone involved in the preparation for opening of the Sacred Rest Daytime Drop-In Center in the Telegraph neighborhood last week,” said Arreguín. “I am proud that Berkeley, the community, and the university are demonstrating town-gown collaboration to address the most pressing issue facing our community today. The twin crises of homelessness and access to affordable housing for all.”

Ari Neulight, left, and Ruben Lizardo stand for a portrait at the newly opened Sacred Rest Drop-In Center in Berkeley, Calif. on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Ari Neulight, left, and Ruben Lizardo attended a barbecue lunch at the drop-in center on June 22. “This is a place where we’re saying ‘Yes, please be here. We welcome you,'” said Neulight. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Ruben Lizardo, UC Berkeley’s director of local government and community relations, has for over a year helped to shepherd the partnerships it took to make Sacred Rest a reality. Lizardo said the commitment from the campus, city, community leaders and nonprofits to serve the unhoused in the area is a testament to true, community-based collaboration.

The name Sacred Rest, Lizardo said, was chosen after discussions that community partners had together about Sacred Sleep, a San Francisco church-based model that similarly provides a place for the unhoused to rest.

“And it also reflected the way that the partners have approached this work — providing folks sanctuary to rest without fear is a sacred act” said Lizardo. “Because if you had to live on the street, could you ever really relax? This is a place where anyone can come in, sit in the shade or lay down on the lawn during the day without fear of being attacked or bothered. And it’s only going to get better.”

The center is open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Village of Love staffer Laron Sanders will manage Sacred Rest along with two other staff members and provide services and consultations to anyone who walks through the doors, from short-term needs like finding medical care to long-term goals like finding stable employment our housing.

Desk and office space with a refrigerator.

Laron Sanders gives a tour of the office space at the newly opened Sacred Rest Drop-In Center. Sanders and his staff will sit down with people to develop goals and identify what services and support they need. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Sacred Rest will provide a mobile shower truck for people to use every Friday, and movie matinees and barbecue cookouts throughout the week. Counselors and doctors will also provide health checkups and therapy.

All services will be dependent upon the needs of the people who come in, said Sanders, though, in its first few days, the center’s staff has only sat down with a handful of clients.

Sanders said they have seen people from the park come in and out of the space to use the large ADA-accessible bathroom, charge electronic devices in their public outlets, and use one of the 20 lockers they provide for people that need a safe place to put their belongings.

Others come in to do job searches at the computer station, or to just sit down and talk inside their two-room mobile office.

Blue lockers at the drop-in center used for storing posessions.

Lockers are available to those who want to store their belongings during the day at Sacred Rest, allowing people to go to job interviews or walk around the area without fear of losing their possessions. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“A lot of us who work here know what it was like to not have a home,” said Sanders, who was also formerly unhoused. “I’m basically serving myself. These are my people, and we want to be able to get them the services they need, from a place of love.”

The center’s outreach will also be aided by city staff and community partners like UC Berkeley’s homeless outreach coordinator Ari Neulight. Neulight, for the past five years, has built relationships with some of the area’s most vulnerable residents, connecting them to housing resources and other social services.

Neulight said because the drop-in center is new, it will take time for the unhoused and for people who frequented People’s Park to visit it consistently. But he is doing his part to get the word out.

Clients play a game of backyard checkers at the newly opened Sacred Rest Drop-In Center.

Visitors to the center play a game of backyard checkers at the drop-in center on June 22 prior to eating a barbecue lunch provided by staff. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

And that effort was evident last week when Sacred Rest served barbecue plates to members of the community. One attendee from the park walked through the doors and yelled out to Neulight, “Thanks for telling me about this Garden of Eden!”

“These are spaces where we can come together, and I think there’s a real vision for continuing to work in the district to support folks in a sustainable way,” said Neulight. “Creating welcoming spaces for people who are often told, ‘No, you can’t be here,’ this is a place where we’re saying, ‘Yes, please be here. We welcome you.’”

And sometimes, that is really all that some people want, said Donna Balda, who has been unhoused for several years and visited Sacred Rest last week to enjoy a plate of barbecue with Village of Love staff. Having a place to connect with other people is “like having a million bucks,” she said, “because nobody wants to feel like they’re alone.”