Roughly 150 or so men and women sleep near the Interstate 80 freeway here, sometimes encountering head-to-toe staph infections or families of rats living inside their mattresses. When that happens, they know who to call.
Andrea Henson’s phone has been ringing for weeks, ever since this bustling university town effectively shut down earlier this month to halt the spread of the coronavirus. With local governments slow to house the homeless, activists such as Henson have stepped into the breach, providing food and other supplies to people sleeping on the street.
“This is the first time I’ve heard people say, ‘Andrea, we’re hungry,’” said Henson, who said that in socially conscious Berkeley, donated food is normally never in short supply.
California had an estimated 108,000 people living outdoors before the virus struck. Over the last several weeks, many of the homeless services that once existed have disappeared.
Because of social distancing requirements, businesses no longer drop off leftovers from conference luncheons, and even food banks have closed their doors. Compounding their problems, people living in tents can no longer charge their cellphones at Starbucks or take a shower at the YMCA.
State and local officials announced plans early on in the pandemic to move thousands of homeless Californians into hotel rooms and emergency trailers. But on the ground, realizing that goal has proved difficult. Two weeks after Governor Gavin Newsom directed residents to shelter in place, thousands are still sleeping on the streets.
And so it has turned to individuals such as Henson — whom one advocate calls the “Mother Goose” of Berkeley’s westside homeless settlements — to help keep people alive. She’s not surprised the system is failing the homeless again.
“I told people from the beginning that we’re gonna act like no help is coming,” said Henson. “It’s the Wild, Wild West.”
In the meantime, she and about 20 other volunteers have formed an emergency network of workers from half a dozen nonprofits that have formally shut their doors. These range from the Berkeley Free Clinic to needle exchange and legal advice groups.