There’s an area that many of us drive through regularly. An area strewn with needles, human waste, piles of festering trash and shattered glass from rampant auto burglaries. It’s not Oakland though, it’s the Southeast section of Emeryville centered around San Pablo and Adeline sometimes referred to as “Star Intersection” or by some locals as “South Point”.
While most of Emeryville has arguably gotten safer, cleaner and more livable in the past few decades, Vickie Jo Sowell’s neighborhood is trending in the opposite direction. “I feel we’ve been forgotten by the city,” she lamented on a recent walking tour of her neighborhood attended by serving Mayor Scott Donahue, Councilmember John Bauters and a dozen or so neighbors.
Sowell coordinated the walk to showcase the plight of her and her neighbors and hopefully provoke action by our leaders to help them and the growing unhoused population.
The tour began in front of Lanesplitter Pizza across from the wreckage of the twice burned Intersection project. The group traveled south along San Pablo Avenue as Sowell pointed out the groundbreaking of the adjacent 3706 San Pablo affordable development, a proposed supportive housing project at the former Doug’s BBQ space and a proposed five-story development on the site of the US Spring building.
Sowell seemed optimistic about the projects boosting our inventory of affordable housing and improving the walkability of the neighborhood. She was less optimistic of the US Spring project that would cast her property and garden in shadow. “I’m also afraid if they decide to build market rate units, they’ll burn that one down too!”
The tour circled back around to the remnants of Oakland’s disbanded Compassionate Communities Program that ran out of funding sending the former occupants scattered around the surrounding area including behind the East Bay Bridge Shopping Center. The program was started with the best of intentions, but in the end, literally went up in flames.
“Sanctioning [the encampment] actually increased the problem,” according to one neighbor on the tour who identified himself as a seven-year resident. “The amount of drug and weapons dealing went up dramatically. It became a destination for these criminals by sanctioning it,” noting how he personally witnessed gun sales. This neighbor, like many I’ve spoken too, also expressed the frustration of living near a city border and experiencing the jurisdictional bureaucracy that has paralyzed local governments and agencies.
Vickie Jo and her husband Steve Skaar bought their home in 1982 and admit the area wasn’t the best at the time. They worked hard to build community and founded the Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Community Garden on the site of a former gas station. The community garden has been a beacon of light for the neighborhood and things had been slowly improving until recently.
“When we first moved here, it was kind of a rough neighborhood and there were always a few scattered homeless. We accepted it, lived with it, evolved with it,” Steve noted somberly referencing the Oakland crack epidemic of the 80’s and the legendary gang violence that came with it. “I have to say, this is the worst it’s ever been.”
While many neighborhoods in the surrounding region have gotten safer and more livable, their neighborhood is going the opposite direction. “It makes you question the definition of what ‘better’ is,” says Steve acknowledging that many are being left behind by the economic prosperity the region is experiencing.
Sowell and her husband speak with the compassion you might expect, and express a sincere concern for the health and wellbeing of their unhoused neighbors. That said, you get the sense that their compassion level, as well as that of their neighbors, is on reserve.
“Many of these ‘throwaway’ kids are young, beautiful kids but suffer from trauma and addiction. They age out of our foster care system and have nowhere to go,” Sowell explains recounting her personal interactions with those living amongst the tents and improvised structures. “They need housing first and then we need to provide them some life skills.”
Looming Public Health Crisis?
Violence, cooking fires and two recent shooting deaths at homeless camps have done little to treat this as the crisis it has become, but perhaps a public health crisis will force the hand of our government to do something more comprehensive and receive federal assistance.
A Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego recently killed 16 and infected 421 others. Santa Cruz County has also experienced a recent outbreak in cases. It seems inevitable that this will make its way to the Bay Area core. Oakland City workers represented by SEIU Local 1021, recently expressed concerns for the safety of their employees and claimed the city was unprepared for a looming public health crisis.
Bauters and Donahue admitted there were few things in the short-term that Emeryville was working on to remedy the situation. The city currently provides $60K annually in funding toward a Berkeley shelter and is training two Emeryville Police officers to serve as homeless liaisons. The City is experiencing a budget shortfall amid declining revenues and is exploring a bond measure for the 2018 ballot to fund affordable housing projects.
Emeryville’s roughly $40 million annual budget is dwarfed by Oakland’s 2.5 Billion biennial budget. Oakland has earmarked $185 million for anti-displacement and homeless services as part of this budget which is a 50% increase from their last budget. Part of this budget will go toward sanitation services and trash pickup beginning with the five largest encampments including Wood Street. They are scheduled to expand this service to include this area by the end of the year.