Emeryville’s Forgotten Neighborhood: “This is the worst it’s ever been”

Published On September 25, 2017 | By Rob Arias | Community Voices, News & Commentary

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.

Sowell explains the ongoing neighborhood issues to those in attendance including serving Emeryville Mayor Scott Donahue in front of the community garden that she founded.

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 “South Point” neighborhood is dense with existing and proposed affordable housing projects.

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.

Sowell points to a gutter behind Pak ‘N Save used to dump human waste.

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.”

Encampments along the on-ramp behind the East Bay Bridge Shopping Center (Photo: Steve Skaar)

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.

About The Author

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who moved to Emeryville in 2003. A new parent in the community, he can often be seen walking his French Bulldog rescue "Fiona" around his Park Avenue District neighborhood, traversing the greenway on his bike or enjoying his favorite Emeryville small businesses. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

9 Responses to Emeryville’s Forgotten Neighborhood: “This is the worst it’s ever been”

  1. J says:

    I think it’s safe to say whoever came up with the idea to sanction encampments doesn’t live right next to one.

  2. sarah says:

    Thank you for reporting on this, Rob. To say that I am disappointed in Bauters and the Mayor is an understatement. I have seen my area degrade in just the two years I have been here. When the police are involved, they say there is nothing they can do, when I alerted an officer to the obvious smell of crack and smoke coming from the bathroom at the Pixar skatepark, I was met with a smile, but 20 minutes later, the group were still inside. The efforts to repurpose unused areas, such as the dog park, seem to fall on deaf and defiant ears. So the dogs and I just step around the trash, feces, and intoxicated and wait for the next election. This is a complicated problem, but I haven’t heard of any plan by the city to address it.

    • Rob Arias says:

      Thanks Sarah, there are a lot of parallels between Vickie Jo’s Community Garden and our dog park. Both were resident initiated and wildly supported by neighbors (sadly, the dog park ran up against local government bureaucracy and politics). I don’t think you’ll ever hear anyone say, “Ya know, that community dog park/community garden really ruined the neighborhood!” 😉

      Your observation about the EPD is also on point as the police are frustrated because they witness the same folks breaking into cars and slowly killing themselves with drugs and they can do nothing to compel them into treatment or the shelters that they desperately need without the threat of jail time because of Prop 47 (carrot, but no stick). I think there are some on our city council who would like to slowly replace officers with social workers.

      Like you pointed out, complicated problem. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This isn’t a housing problem, it’s a substance abuse and mental health problem. Adding more affordable housing isn’t going to solve these problems.

  4. Resident says:

    The City workers should be worried about Hep C too, not just A. There is no vaccine for C. Needle sticks can have some nasty virus’s attached.

  5. Cameron says:

    Rob — you have a couple of responses to this article over on Nextdoor. Any input as to why you followed such a dire description of the encampments with the phrase, “It’s not Oakland though”?

    • Rob Arias says:

      Thanks Cameron. The point was that I think there are some in Emeryville that think our city doesn’t have a homeless problem or think it’s an Oakland problem. Clearly it’s a regional issue and city’s need to work together on regional solutions and share the responsibility. Hopefully this wasn’t their takeaway from the article and they read past the first paragraph.

      • Anonymous says:

        Maybe they can approach it like the regional minimum wage issue…oh wait, they’ll act alone on this.

      • Anonymous says:

        Never expect the people who got you into a mess to get you out of it.

        “Progressive” politics is the problem. Idealistic fantasies are trumping pragmatic realities. Proven left-leaning solutions are out the door. Jac Asher, Dianne Martinez, Scott Donahue, Ruth Atkin, and John Bauters created this mess and the current council continues to double down on it.

        Look at what the city is spending to help the SEIU market its latest scheme. Look at the services Emeryville is having to cut. Progressive.

        Look at our new police force that is busy implementing ‘mindfulness’ training. See all that broken car glass in the streets? Be mindful of our 90% increase in property crime. Progressive.

        The city budget is, out of nowhere, suddenly deep in the red. Rents are outrageous. Small businesses are fleeing. Big businesses have already left. Store fronts remain empty. And the streets are tent cities. Progressive.

        I believe Dianne Martinez described this as all of us “rising up together”. Remember how that minimum wage increase in Oakland was sold? Anyone recall the powerpoint slide about social justice where they showed the wall-to-wall homeless encampments? Progressive.

        If you keep your eyes up on the billboards with Libby Schaff’s face on them or your eyes down on the shit on your shoes, you might miss the new open-air drug markets and bicycle chop shops under every freeway.

        All that shooting you hear? That’s the sound of restorative justice. Progressive.

        But, it’s ok. The labor unions got theirs and the politicians made the national news, so it’s all good. Just don’t leave anything in your car, write down Uber’s phone number on the back of your pink slip, and step lightly around the needles. Oh, and watch for the black-clad anarchists beating people in the streets. Social justice ain’t easy.

        Self-indulgent, empathy oozing, political aggrandizing short-sightedness has made a big, beautiful mess.

        Recently, I saw a woman splashing a hefty bucket of human waste into the middle of the street, and I realized we have now finally arrived. Progressive utopia has been achieved.

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