Oakland city workers this week hauled off 250 tons — 500,000 pounds — of garbage and junk from a city lot adjacent to a Home Depot where dozens of homeless are living in broken-down RVs, trashed campers, and scrap shanties.
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo told the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday that the city disposed of 75 truckloads of debris that had accumulated at the site, “and we still have 50 more tons to go.”
“It shows you just how big this thing is,” he said.
The “clean and clear” effort dwarfs other California cities struggling with rampant homelessness, including San Francisco, where officials told the Chronicle cleanups don’t typically exceed 10 tons.
Oakland’s homeless director Joe DeVries said complaints from Home Depot and fires at the city’s homeless encampments, as well as media tours led by Gallo prompted fire officials to assess the area, where they found “extremely hazardous fire conditions,” Fire Marshal Orlando Arriola told the news site.
“The risk to human life at the site due to fire danger is unacceptable,” he said.
At least 158 confirmed fires broke out in homeless encampments in the city through the first nine months of 2019, according to the Chronicle.
“And this site is a perfect example of how impossible the situation has become for the public and for the poor living there,” DeVries said. “We had a utility pole get burned in one of the structure fires last month that knocked out power to the nearby traffic signals.”
Homelessness is on the rise across California but it’s particularly bad in Oakland, where volunteers counted 4,071 people living on the street, in vehicles and shelters during the city’s biennial count in January, according to The Mercury News.
That figure was 47 percent higher than the last count in 2017, when volunteers counted 2,761 homeless. In 2015, it was 2,191, the data shows.
Efforts to fix the problem have been unsuccessful, with three people becoming homeless in Alameda County for every person who finds housing, convinced the city to open up three safe parking sites for RVs over the summer. The city has also housed homeless in garden sheds and spent $9 million on “providing financial and other resources to at-risk residents,” but tents, cars and RVs converted into permanent residences continue to line Oakland streets in what Mayor Libby Schaaf describes as a “humanitarian crisis.”
“Oakland is responding with urgency and innovation,” Schaaf wrote in a prepared statement to the News in July. “We’re making unprecedented investments to expand our incredibly successful rapid rehousing centers, as well as new interventions like Community Cabins and Save RV Parks. By December, we will have created roughly 700 additional supported shelter beds.”
In the meantime, the fires and the cleanup continues.
“We just had a fire Sunday,” Gallo told the Chronicle. “This guy set fire to his RV right in the middle of one of the lots” by the Home Depot.
DeVries said residents of the encampment were shooed to another nearby private lot during the cleanup, then once all the fire hazards are hauled away they’ll be allowed to return.
“They all moved to the nearby private lot while we clean out the public lot,” he said. “Then we clean the private lot, and they all move back to the public lot. It’s like vacuuming your living room: If you want to do it right, you have to move stuff to one side while you vacuum the other and vice versa.”