In recent weeks, demolition crews razed the former Nady Systems building on Shellmound that had become prone to squatting and blight. Last December 7th, City of Berkeley crews dismantled the Aquatic Park Homeless Community where around 25 homeless individuals had lived for about a year. Caltrans crews recently removed piles of trash that had accumulated on Frontage road.
While the clean up efforts bordering the cities of Emeryville and Berkeley have been welcomed by some neighbors and those that frequented the park for recreational purposes, many expressed concern and compassion for the former occupants. “Where did they go?” “I hope the city found them housing,” were common reactions.
The answer to these questions is elusive.
Aquatic Park Camp’s Brief History
The Aquatic Park camp was formed after the dismantling of the ‘Here There’ protest camp on a strip of BART-owned land near the Ashby station back in November 2017. Occupants split into three smaller camps including one just north of the ‘Here There’ site, one at Old City Hall, and one at Aquatic Park along the railroad tracks near the I-80 East on-ramp.
The camp was originally established as a clean and sober spot for homeless seniors according to organizers. It stood out among the many in the surrounding areas for being not only well maintained, but incorporating sustainability features like solar power. “Aquatic park was the camp responsible for getting the solar systems to other homeless camps,” noted camp co-organizer and homeless advocate Mike Zint. “We outfitted five camps, our three, and two in Oakland, including The [recently dismantled] Village camp. Zint is a co-founder of ‘First They Came for the Homeless’ (FTCFTH) activist group which maintains an active facebook presence.
When the Old City Hall camp was subsequently dismantled in February 2018, occupants joined the Aquatic Park camp. This merger is when things began to worsen in the area including several small fires, an unattended death, and an incident shortly after where a woman was stabbed and paralyzed.
Public Notice of Trespassing Violation Posted
The City of Berkeley had posted a public notice dated November 29th advising the Aquatic Park homeless community they were in direct violation of State Penal Code Section 647(e). The code cited the encampment as illegal.
PC 647(e) “prohibits lodging on public property without permission of the property owner and warns that “…every person who commits any of the following acts is guilty of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.”
Crews arrived at sunrise the day of December 7th and began dismantling the camp, clearing the area of abandoned tents and debris. Two days later, the area was cordoned off by a chain-link fence, its former inhabitants vanished except for a few that were scattered to the outskirts of area.
Assistant to the City of Berkeley City Manager and Public Information Officer Matthai Chakko stated that a number of staff and people from the City are involved with monitoring and, if necessary, clearing homeless encampments. These decision makers include the Berkeley Police and Fire Departments, the Health, Housing and Community Services Department, and Neighborhood Services.
“The decision is done administratively through the City,” Chakko said. “If someone was being hurt at an encampment, we wouldn’t that to happen. If people are living in a set of unhealthy conditions, we don’t want that either. The safest way is for people to be housed.”
Former Park Occupants Weigh In
Kent Laring Dull, a 63-year-old who has lived with Parkinson’s for the past 14 years, lived at the encampment in a familiar white mini-trailer. Dull was one of the original occupants of the site when it was established.
Dull didn’t take the City’s public notice lightly. The week before the camp was dismantled, he had already transported his belongings back to the original ‘Here There” splinter camp.
He said that there was good reason as to why this particular encampment was cleared and fenced. “It’s not surprising. There were drug dealers and druggies [at Aquatic Park]. It was not a good crowd. The general public was not able to park in the lot; it got real messy,” Dull said.
Artist and activist *Travis, who wanted anonymity to protect his identity, was also living at the encampment for its final months. He kept company with the core of the senior camp. “The City promised not to raid in the middle of a rain storm, but after the storm and with fair advance notice as to when, which I never received,” said *Travis. “I did arrive at the scene of the raid during a rainstorm, and was only given perhaps five minutes to grab my things. I had been robbed. One protester got his RV towed.”
Dull recalled there being about 10-15 individuals at the Aquatic Park encampment at its inception, but the number rose to just about 25 before the camp was cleared. Men were the majority with about five or six women.
*Joe, who preferred to keep his real name anonymous, was also one of the first occupants alongside Dull, helping build the encampment from the ground up.
Both *Joe and Dull recalled that in the beginning, there were strict rules established at Aquatic Park; the most important was the banning of drugs and alcohol within the encampment. Community members voted on policies during weekly meetings implementing a majority rule. This democratic decision-making eventually lost steam about eight months after the encampment formed. One of the biggest issues, and the one that arguably led to the closure, was the lack of means of enforcement.
*Joe observed people he did not recognize routinely bringing and illegally leaving trash at the encampment. The trash inevitably attracted rats. He began noticing these strange events last March and believes this is a reason why the City cited environmental, safety and health hazards.
“The last four months were horrendous,” Dull said.
“It used to be organized and the area looked really nice when we first got there,” *Joe claimed. “A man named Jay held the camp together but after he left, things got worse. I didn’t know who was a guest, and who wasn’t.”
Dull said only a handful of troublemakers were kicked out from time to time, but they soon returned and did as they pleased. Drug dealers and addicts routinely vandalized and trashed the area. Dull also witnessed people getting into physical altercations and some homeless women being physically assaulted.
“The last four months were horrendous,” Dull said.
Zint further explained that the Aquatic Park encampment simply had no control over who joined and it was soon overrun by those who wanted live there but did not want to follow the rules. “We lost control. Our advocates and some residents struggled for many months to maintain and clean up the camp. They failed. The end result was the raid,” added Zint.
According to Chakko, the City of Berkeley will close a particular encampment after repeated flagging and escalation of health and safety concerns. “In general, the types of health and safety concerns that we have concerns about in the past that have led to closures of encampment are garbage, feces, needles, fires, criminal activity, and the accumulation of those things,” Chakko explained.
21 Tons of Waste Collected From Site
Both Chakko and Berkeley Solid Waste & Recycling Manager Greg Apa stated that trash was collected that day and sent to Altamont Landfill & Resource Recovery in Livermore.
“There was 21 tons of waste collected,” Apa stated. “It came across the scale as garbage and went out that day,” said Apa. “It’s already been landfilled.”
Apa would not disclose what type of waste was collected or if contaminated soil – which could explain the heavy figure – was also part of the load. Because of the wet weather before and during the clearing, the moisture content could have added to the weight.
According to a report produced by the Office of the Berkeley City Manager, “City staff shall not store any of the following items as they are unsafe for storage or considered to be trash: wet or damp clothing, bedding or sleeping bags if storing it would cause it to mold.”
Chakko stated that City workers aim to be conscientious when removing and storing personal property collected from encampments.
“If somebody is in an encampment and it’s cleared for health and safety reasons, they’re allowed to claim anything. Our staff go through belongings and if it’s determined of value, they go into storage,” Chakko said.
Martin v. City of Boise Ruling
A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Martin v. City of Boise, was upheld last September, making it illegal for law enforcement to cite or arrest anyone for sleeping or camping on public property if the city or county does not have sufficient shelter beds. “It is a violation of the 8th Amendment to force homeless people to leave their encampments if they have nowhere else to go,” confirmed Managing Attorney at the Homeless Action Center Heather Freinkel. The Homeless Action Center, which has locations in Berkeley and Oakland, provides legal services to the homeless in Alameda County.
Zint underscored that before evicting homeless individuals of an encampment, cities must first have enough beds available.
27 Vouchers Offered – Only One Accepted
Chakko stated that the City offered 27 vouchers to the Aquatic Park encampment community during the clearing. Only one took advantage of the offer. “We made it clear in our outreach that we had space for them at Dorothy Day,” said Chakko. “Dorothy Day is not the only shelter we have, but it’s what we offered that day.”
Nevertheless, Zint believes there was an agenda behind the closure of the Aquatic Park encampment. “We knew the cities would keep a couple of vacancies,” said Zint. “We knew they would use those vacancies as the justification to raid.”
Dull, who relocated to the ‘Here There’ Camp, chose not to go to Dorothy Day Shelter because he would not be able to park his trailer nearby. He said his trailer gives him the freedom that he would otherwise not have at a shelter. He drew from his past experiences of being pegged as a ‘drunk’, due to impaired ability to walk. “I tend to be a bit of a recluse because of my Parkinson’s,” said Dull. “I prefer staying in my trailer because I can be self-sufficient.”
*Joe also chose to move to the ‘Here There’ camp the day of the clearing. He said he received a Dorothy Day Shelter voucher from Breanne Slimick, a Logistics Coordinator with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. However, *Joe would rather stay with others out in the streets. “If I had been left alone at Aquatic Park, that would have been perfect,” he said.
While Dull and *Joe declined the housing offer, *Travis was the one who had taken his voucher to the Dorothy Day Shelter, located in the basement of the Veterans Memorial Building on Center Street.
On *Travis’ voucher was a crucial deadline. It stated that in order to “claim a bed starting December 6, [he] must bring this flyer and check in on December 6 by 7:00 p.m.”
Chakko said the same-day expiration prevents voucher holders from abusing the system. “Vouchers guarantee space, but we can’t ever indefinitely offer shelter to one person,” Chakko explained. “We can’t hold space just because someone doesn’t want to come that day. Just because we have beds doesn’t mean people take them.”
Space in shelters is reserved for either people for who have been assessed and listed in Alameda County’s Coordinated Entry System or for those with a voucher from a city-sponsored agency. According to The City of Berkeley’s website, Coordinated Entry happens through the North County Hub, a collaboration between the Cities of Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville, and Berkeley Food & Housing Project.
Dorothy Day Shelter Program Manager Bob Whalen verified that as of January 29, there are no more available beds at Dorothy Day. “We currently have 57 beds at our shelter,” said Whalen. “They are all occupied. We are trying to expand our capacity, but in the meantime, the beds are constantly full.”
Given that filling shelter beds is the goal of the City, this is both good and bad news. Still, Dorothy Day Shelter was the only housing offered to the Aquatic Park community and as far the City knows, only one resident, *Travis, had went. Chakko would not disclose the total number of available beds the City has. He reasoned that although the goal is to house all the homeless, the City can only take in so many at any given time.
“We strive for there to be no available beds,” stated Chakko. “We shelter hundreds of people a night, but Berkeley alone can’t house everybody. Other cities have to take responsibility too.”
“We shelter hundreds of people a night, but Berkeley alone can’t house everybody. Other cities have to take responsibility too.”
*Travis shared his experience at Dorothy Day Shelter and said things were going smoothly at first, until the environment proved to be too depleting for his mental and physical well-being. “Not only do they have beds, they have wonderful staff and chefs,” *Travis said. “But there are many people who have loud conversations late into the night and then wake you up at 5:30 a.m.”
After four nights of “sleep deprivation and disease”, *Travis said he gave up. “I gave it an honest try, but it is not adequate as shelter,” he lamented.
Zint offered his opinions on the shelter options that are typically provided: “Our members retreated into our other camps. All the others got moved. Where? Some went to the shelter, most went to another spot in the city. One of those who took the offered shelter has already complained about getting bed bugs. This is normal, and this is why we have tents. We do not want to be forced into a human warehouse full of vermin and disease.”
According to a 2017 study conducted by the Urban Institute Report, there were five most common responses – some with overlap – given when homeless individuals were asked why they chose to live on the streets instead of in shelters. 42 percent said that shelters were full, 41 percent said that they had too many germs or bugs, 29 percent said that they were too crowded, 22 percent said that they were unsafe, and 20 percent said that they had too many rules.
“Many shelters do not provide adequate accommodations for people with mental health disabilities, and many people have mental or physical health conditions that make it impossible for them to tolerate shelter conditions,” said Freinkel.
“Our system is based around the idea that the people who are most in need are the people who will get into housing first,” Chakko said.
“Our members at Aquatic Park were seniors, disabled, and women,” said Zint. “Vulnerable is an understatement. The city could have helped. Instead, they decided equal protection under the law is something homeless do not qualify for. When you are homeless, someone is always coming for you.”
“Our members at Aquatic Park were seniors, disabled, and women,” said Zint. “Vulnerable is an understatement.”
To combat homelessness in the City and County, funding was recently provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. On January 26, the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, and Alameda County, were awarded $33.5 million for 38 projects and programs to assist the homeless community.
“I think many homeless service providers would agree that these funds should be used to purchase, rehabilitate, and develop permanent affordable housing units,” Freinkel said in response to the award. “Our agency and others who provide direct services to homeless individuals in Alameda County hope that cities will change course and offer increased services and permanent housing, rather than threatening and punishing people for being homeless.”
Executive Director of EveryOne Home Elaine de Coligny previously stated that it would cost $300 million annually to get most of the County’s roughly 5,600 homeless into sustainable housing. (The latest bi-annual EveryOne Home homeless count was conducted on January 30 and will be released this summer.)
Other than three former Aquatic Park occupants who relocated to the ‘Here There’ camp – which is run by FTCFTH and well-organized – it is unknown where the others have gone.
Even for those, like Dull, who currently live at an established space like the ‘Here There’ camp, the future always remains uncertain. Dull said he recently received a notice to move his trailer before February 3. But before that happened, police separated Dull from his mini-trailer on February 2, leaving no choice but for Dull – who had found it easier to move around in his trailer given his disabled state – to return back to living in a tent.
Update: We have retracted the allegations of shelter bed bugs and camp provocateurs at the request of the source.
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Congratulations to E’Ville Eye and Sarah Belle for the above long and insightful article on Homelessness. So often pubic impatient reaction to homelessness is based upon the insufficient understanding of local community, government and Federal efforts and financing undertaken to deal with this difficult situation. Though the ultimate solution is inextricably bound to Federal understanding and action, local commitment and action is a big part of the solution. Fortunately, for those of us who attend Emeryville City Council meetings, it is gratifying to see our City Council very pro-active in ameliorating this complex state of affairs.
Cities, counties and the state have to ensure public safety for all. The toxic waste left from homeless camps is not a solution for anyone, especially those of us who pay our share for parks and public use areas for all including families to recreate. That was the original idea behind parks right (a safe place to relax)?
I want to enjoy our community just as much as anyone else and I cannot bring my family to many of our parks and local areas because of the mess and unsafe conditions. Where will this end? Parks and freeway underpasses filled with tents, littered with bikes and shopping carts that have been stolen, fecal matter and trash strewn about and landscaping left in ruin? Urban blight is not the answer, save our property values and way of life before it is too late!
I feel like I am taking crazy pills. Since when is it okay for people to take over and blight public space? This article is a bleeding heart view of the situation. This area is a public health and safety hazard and the city needs to clean it up.
I’m sorry the dream didn’t work out for folks like Mr. Dull and Mr. Zint, but that camp was a disgusting cesspool. If you’re going to make public space your home, at least treat it and your fellow community with respect. And if you can’t do that, well … no tears here.
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