As city workers continue to uproot the homeless from encampments around Richmond, at times without any warning or help, Mayor Tom Butt is pushing to raise $1.5 million from local companies to pay for a managed homeless encampment.
He has asked several local companies, including Chevron Corporation, Kaiser Permanente, Blue Apron, Costco Wholesale and Sims Metal Management to donate $154,000 each—to build and run a camp serving 100 people for a year.
As a group of homeless people were being evicted this past week from a camp on 22nd Street and Carlson Boulevard, several expressed hope about Butt’s plan.
“They need different types of places for us to go instead of us being moved around just like baggage or garbage,” said Shetani Rushard, a member of the group.
Butt’s proposal represents a new and bold effort by Richmond to try and respond to the growing number of unsheltered people who are mostly living in temporary encampments around the city. If successful, Richmond would join several other cities that have recently set up managed encampments for the homeless.
Richmond Confidential did not receive information from any of the companies about whether or not they would provide the funding the mayor is seeking, although several made comments about the importance of helping homeless people in the community.
Butt said one Richmond-based company, which he would not name, has given verbal confirmation to help fund the encampment. He said official funding from this firm should come through soon, but he hasn’t yet received confirmation from the other companies.
California has the most homeless people of any state in the nation, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The state also has the highest proportion of homeless as a percentage of the population. The lack of affordable housing is a big reason why so many people in California are homeless, a report on National Public Radio suggests.
Contra Costa County’s Coordinated Outreach Referral Engagement team made contact with 721 unsheltered people in Richmond between January 2017 and April 2018. There is no reliable comparison of this count to previous years, but experts say the number has risen significantly in recent years.
The city has closed down 81 homeless encampments over the past year and a half, according to the Richmond Police Department. On Tuesday, officers from both the police department and the Park and Landscaping Division closed down two more encampments. As they were being evicted, encampment residents expressed hope about Butt’s plan.
Rushard said that in a managed encampment, “we can protect each other. Because if you are by yourself, it’s scary out here.”
Butt’s plan involves paying a local nonprofit to manage a 100-person homeless encampment. It would offer basic amenities like tents, beds, portable toilets, washing stations, water, electricity and trash service. Butt said the location is yet to be decided, but he is looking for a vacant lot that is close to public transportation, but far away from residential areas because “people will complain bitterly about it.”
In Richmond this past week, the struggle of the homeless was again on display.
Between 8 a.m. and noon on Tuesday, the people living in the encampment on Carlson Boulevard were frantically moving their belongings so that they wouldn’t be thrown away by the city. Some had lived at that camp for a few days while others for more than a month. Many moved their baggage across the street and watched, stoically, as workers in green vests tossed their trash and leftover belongings into the back of a truck.
Cella Jones and Porkchop, residents of a homeless encampment, watch as the city clears out the camp they have been living in for more than two weeks.
Among those watching was Sedzi Mcnair, 25, who has been homeless in Richmond his whole life. He said he understands the city has a job to do but urges its leaders to have compassion and provide basic services like portable toilets and sanitation stations to existing encampments.
He said he wished police could experience what it “feels like to actually go through what we are going through.”
“At the end of the day, they got somewhere to go, we don’t,” he said.
Rushard, who was also removed from the same encampment, said when she asked an officer where she should sleep that night, he responded that, “There is no place specific for the homeless.”
Shetani Rushard sits in front of the encampment on 22nd Street and Carlson Boulevard after city workers finished cleaning it out last Tuesday.
Under a Richmond ordinance and a recently passed California state law, the city is required to make sure homeless people have a place, like a homeless shelter, to go to before ordering them to move. The city is also supposed to give encampments written notice at least 72 hours before removing them.
But the 14 residents in the encampment on Carlson Boulevard were awoken at 8 a.m. by police without advanced notice or any help figuring out where they were going to sleep that night. The encampment lies across the street from a local nonprofit, Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, which had been providing showers and other services to the encampment residents during work hours, as well as one meal a day.
Tim Higares, Richmond’s director of infrastructure maintenance and operations, acknowledges the city didn’t follow protocol.
“It is our policy that prior to any homeless encampment removal, staff post notification and contacts the County CORE team to offer assistance,” he wrote in an email.
“Unfortunately, this did not occur this time,” he said. The closure of the encampment was coordinated by the Department of Infrastructure Maintenance & Operations team, with the assistance of local police, and the people living there were not given the required three-day notice.
Higares said that in the future he will ensure the homeless in encampments receive proper notice and services before they are forced to leave. In his email, he said he will also hold trainings next week with city staff to “ensure that ALL employees that are involved with homeless encampment removal follow the City’s established policy,” including giving proper notice and offering other shelter.
Many of the residents of the encampment don’t view homeless shelters as viable options. They cited the shortage of beds, not being able to bring their pets and a feeling that the shelters are unsafe.
“Shelters are worse because people take your things. People do it around here sometimes but it happens more in a shelter than in an encampment,” Maurice Bell, 48, a resident of the encampment, said in an interview.
Maurice Bell, a resident of the encampment on 22nd Street and Carlson Boulevard, moves out of the camp last Tuesday morning.
Still, it’s not easy to get a bed in a shelter. The Bay Area Rescue Mission, one of two homeless shelters in Richmond, turns down more than a thousand requests for beds every year, according to John Anderson, the organization’s executive director.
Kathleen Sullivan, the executive director of the local nonprofit across the street from the encampment, says she understands why homeless people in Richmond don’t see shelters as options. She talks to the homeless people from the encampment and the surrounding neighborhood when they use the bathrooms and showers and eat the free meal that her staff provides daily.
“Unfortunately, I understand why shelter living is a challenge for a lot of people because of the rules and restrictions,” Sullivan said. Some of the rules that local shelters in Richmond enforce don’t allow pets, partners or large amounts of possessions.
Butt said he understands that many homeless communities won’t go to shelters, and he sees encampments rapidly expanding in Richmond without any city regulation or services. So tent camps that have basic amenities and nonprofit management seem like the best short-term option to him.
“Ideally, you would be able to provide people the type of services that they need so they can transition out of that into real homes and real jobs,” Butt said.
The city of San Jose decided Tuesday that the residents of Hope Village, a privately funded and managed encampment that allows up to 30 beds near the San Jose International Airport, can stay put without fear of eviction for six months.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese released a statement on Tuesday urging the county to come up with a more permanent housing solution for homeless communities “before the residents are forced to relocate again.”
Some city leaders are worried about the safety of homeless encampments, noting that a fire earlier this month destroyed the shelters of 37 homeless residents at The Village, a sanctioned homeless encampment in Oakland.
Needa Bee, the co-founder of The Village, attributes the fire to overcrowding. The Village was designed to house up to 40 “high functioning people,” or individuals who do not have grave mental health or addiction issues. But the city moved more than 40 additional homeless people into The Village who had a wide range of mental health and addiction needs, Bee said. Bee sees the potential in managed encampments but is wary of advocating for a one-dimensional solution. Several officials from the city of Oakland did not respond to requests for comment.
“There are so many reasons why people are homeless and every single demographic needs its own solution,” Bee said. “There is no such thing as a one-size fits all, there is no cookie-cutter solution to housing homeless people.”
Michelle Milam, Richmond Police Department’s crime prevention manager and a member of the city’s homeless task force, sees a managed encampment as a “stepping stone” but not a permanent solution. She foresees potential challenges in maintaining safety.
“It’s the almost insurmountable task that all cities are facing. It’s like, ‘How do you deal with this?’” Milam said. “How do we ensure the safety of the people” in the managed encampments?
But Richmond’s current system of closing down encampments appears to be a short-term solution in the extreme, as was clear watching the sequence of events after the group of unsheltered people living on Carlson Boulevard were removed by city workers on Tuesday.
Over the next few days, the people who had been moved out by the workers simply returned and set up camp again. They said they would keep using the bathrooms and showers at the nonprofit across the street when they could and try as hard as possible to keep the camp clean and quiet in the hopes of avoiding another eviction.
The residents living in the encampment on 22nd Street and Carlson Boulevard set their tents back up by the end of last week.
Each eviction is an added stress for the residents who are dealing with the harsh realities of sleeping outside every night.
“I am not a perfect human being,” Mcnair, the homeless man who lives in the encampment on Carlson Boulevard said. But, he said, “I don’t feel like we are breaking any laws.”
Mcnair was among those back at the encampment by the end of the week.