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Client Had Described Berkeley Navigation Center As 'Dangerous and Deplorable'

BERKELEY (KPIX 5) -- James Wood says he was so afraid, he cried the first night he stayed in Berkeley's STAIR navigation center.

It's a rapid rehousing program run by Bay Area Community Services, or BACS. The program is supposed to help people move from encampments into permanent housing.

"I was really upset because, when I first got here, it was deplorable conditions. It seemed to be nothing but a glorified homeless encampment," Wood said. "There was so much drugs being used, doors were slamming every two minutes. People were up all night, in and out of the buildings."

Wood told KPIX 5 he moved into the STAIR center in September. During his two months there, he said the building went a full week without hot water, had sinks that didn't work, flooded bathrooms, broken washers and dryers and fire extinguishers that were more than six months overdue for inspection.

He said it didn't feel safe and it wasn't clean.

"It's deplorable. The bathrooms are disgusting," Wood said.

He's been offered two so-called permanent housing options during his time there, the first in Concord. When he went to move in, he found out he was going to have a roommate he had never met.

"I said, 'I'm out of here. You can't hold it against me because this was rented to me as a single room,'" Wood said.

The next place he looked at was in Oakland. This time he knew it would be a shared room, as most permanent solutions BACS offers are, but he was caught off guard again.

"They added a third bed to the room! So now we're paying $2,100 for a small master bedroom, with three people and I don't even know who they are," Wood said.

In previous reports, KPIX 5 found BACS regularly placed multiple adults in shared bedrooms with people they have never met. Often tenants can't access the kitchen to cook. We found one woman was placed in a garage that had a rat infestation.

When we asked the City of Berkeley to respond to all the complaints we heard from BACS clients, a spokesperson accused us of "willfully printing inaccuracies about BACS."

They then refused to do an on camera interview. We found we were not the only ones elevating these concerns to city officials.

"I personally called the mayor's office many times," said Marcia Poole, a Berkeley homeless activist.

Poole has been corresponding with Wood since she met him living in a tent on the street five years ago. She said when he checked in to the STAIR center, she visited him multiple times.

"I mean, the place was dirty. The place was dirty. The place was just dirty," Poole repeated.

Talking to other residents she says she soon heard even worse complaints, like that there wasn't enough food.

"It is brought in by Meals on Wheels in the morning, but by the time anyone got to it, it was gone pretty much. So they were hungry there," Poole said.

She argued it is a potentially dangerous place.

"Here are all these people sleeping all together in a big vast room. This was a man who was afraid he was going to go to sleep and not wake up," Poole said, referring to James Wood.

Jamie Almanza is the executive director for BACS. After denying our requests for an interview for two months, she finally agreed to sit down with us.

KPIX pointed out that police records show 79 calls in the year and a half that the STAIR center has been open. One was for an assault on Wood. He says he slept on the street that night out of fear for his life.

When asked if the STAIR center is safe and has adequate staffing, Almanza replied, "absolutely."

She also said she stands by their numbers. BACS boasts an 82 percent success rate in finding permanent housing for homeless clients at the STAIR center, but she couldn't provide those numbers during the on-camera interview.

After the interview, her staff emailed KPIX a screenshot of what it sent to the county stating that 16 percent of its clients return to homelessness. When KPIX asked for the study and the data to back that up, BACS again referred KPIX to the county, but the county referred KPIX back to BACS, saying, "we are not able to segment by jurisdiction or provider in any way that provides an accurate picture."

In an email to investors that we obtained, written shortly after our first report on BACS, Almanza encouraged investors to be "selective in their viewing of KPIX," saying KPIX puts "vulnerable people on camera without considering their mental health state".

Wood told KPIX it's just the opposite. He said BACS tried exploit him in his interview with us.

The day of the scheduled interview, Wood started getting phone calls and visits from people within BACS.

"This morning, my coordinator came to me and said, 'We need to talk." He goes, 'Let's go to breakfast,'" Wood said to KPIX 5's Susie Steimle. "He's concerned about what I might say in this interview. They wanted someone to sit here during the interview with me that was working for BACS without you knowing. I felt like if you found that out, there goes my credibility."

Wood says BACS Chief Clinical Strategy Officer Benjamin Blake asked if he could sit in on Wood's interview with KPIX without telling KPIX who he was. Wood says BACS wanted to ensure that he talked positively about the program to us.

In a text message, Blake said, "I'd like to be with you to support you when you do the interview, if that would be acceptable to you."

After the interview, Blake checked in again: "No interview?"

Wood responded, "No, I was interviewed, it went well."

Blake followed up, asking, "Did you talk positively about BACS?"

KPIX asked Almanza why Blake would want to sit in on the interview.

She replied, "So Ben Blake is a staff member at BACS and we offer support to every client, in every scenario possible. I actually think it's a wonderful thing that a senior level staff would offer support to any individual."

Wood says he feels stuck. He says he's coming forward with this story because he believes BACS hasn't helped him find adequate housing and he's losing hope that they ever will.

"I'm comfortable doing this, because I've already accepted that I will die on the street if this doesn't change. They're not going to be able to get me a place," Wood said.

He said there was some good news: BACS has made improvements to the conditions at the STAIR center after he, Marcia Poole and KPIX brought it to the attention of BACS and the City of Berkeley.

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