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Voucher Program Launched in Berkeley to Care for Homeless

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Responding to the concerns of residents and merchants, a coalition of city, charity and university officials is launching a voucher program for the homeless that is believed to be the most comprehensive in the nation.

Under the program, Berkeley merchants will sell 25-cent vouchers in books of four to their customers, who can hand them out to panhandlers. Starting in June, they will be able to redeem the coupons for laundry, food or bus service.

“It is something simple we can do to deal with the problems of the homeless,” said Jeffrey S. Leiter, president of the Downtown Berkeley Assn., a business group that is helping to organize the voucher program. “If people feel guilty but don’t want to give money because they’re afraid it’ll be used for drugs and booze, then they can give vouchers.”

The original impetus for the vouchers came from Berkeley merchants who feared that large numbers of panhandlers gathering outside their stores were scaring away customers. The merchants worked together with homeless advocates, charities, city government and UC Berkeley to develop a program to aid Berkeley’s estimated 800 homeless people. The result was the voucher program, known as “Berkeley Cares.”

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“It’s a great program and a great idea,” said Linda Hervey, a member of the Berkeley Homeless Union who was herself homeless for eight months. “I feel very strongly this is a step in the right direction. It’s people helping people.”

But some homeless advocates are not convinced that the program will be of much use.

“It takes a lot of vouchers for a homeless person to have anything of value,” said Curtis Bray, another member of the Homeless Union who was on the street for more than three years. “It takes at least $4 to $5 to do your laundry. The vouchers should be worth more.”

Reaction to the program seemed mixed recently among pedestrians near the UC Berkeley campus. Some, like Julie Fretzin, a marketing director from Oakland, said they would be more willing to give vouchers than cash to panhandlers. “The program sounds like a great idea,” she said.

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But Rachel Cave, a student from the University of British Columbia, was doubtful the program will work. “Giving is a spontaneous thing. It’s hard to picture people going out of their way to get coupons,” she said.

When the program begins its six-month trial run in June, more than 20 stores on Telegraph and Shattuck avenues, two main commercial corridors of downtown Berkeley, will stock the coupons. In each of the stores, there also will be a box where customers can drop cash donations that will go directly to local charities.

A number of laundries, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants and the AC Transit bus company have agreed to redeem the vouchers, organizers say. The Berkeley Emergency Food Project, a local charity, will also offer meals to the homeless for 25 cents--the price of one coupon.

In order to keep the program’s overhead costs low, the managers of UC Berkeley’s student store have agreed to volunteer as administrators during the trial period. And Bank of America will set up a free checking account for the program.

Although Berkeley officials tout their program as the most comprehensive in the nation, a number of limited voucher systems are already in operation.

One of those is in Los Angeles, where the privately run Weingart Center sells coupons that homeless people can redeem for a meal at the downtown shelter. Since the program started two years ago, more than 27,000 tickets have been sold in $25 packs of 10, said Elizabeth Bailey, Weingart Center vice president.


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