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Castro Street

New grant offers hope of housing for people encamped on Castro Street

on March 23, 2022

Angelina Peña moved into a trailer in a vacant parking lot in North Richmond nine months ago. 

“Unfortunately, hardship happened,” she said, offering a quick explanation of the predicament that took her away from her children and to the encampment where her sister was living. 

Peña landed a job with Safe Organized Spaces, an advocacy group that donated the trailer she lives in alongside about 100 other residents at the Castro Street encampment. Named after its entrance at the intersection of Castro and Hensley streets, the encampment has long been a focal point of the city’s housing crisis. Despite attempts from the Richmond City Council to create a safe parking space elsewhere and efforts by nonprofits to provide relief, the encampment has only grown since its formation about two years ago. But that may change, thanks to a new state grant. 

Richmond will receive $4.8 million to clear the Castro Street encampment and provide residents with permanent housing. The grant is part of a $14 billion initiative from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to tackle the state’s homelessness crisis. And it’s the first time the city has received funds dedicated to a single encampment, said Michelle Milam, a Police Department crime specialist who also served on the city’s homeless task force and works with the Community Development Department to address the issue. 

Castro Street
Beyond a map of Richmond sits the Castro Street encampment.

“I was really excited that they were trying to look at creative solutions for cities, because we’ve been drowning, kind of struggling by ourselves,” Milam said. 

Milam sees homelessness as a public health and social services issue that often defaults to the Police Department. “We’ve made everything a law enforcement issue because we haven’t invested in those things,” Milam said. 

The ultimate goal is to rehouse everybody’

In the early days of the pandemic, Peña’s sister, Desiree Campos, parked her trailer on Castro Street, where only two others sat. Back then, the vehicles were parked out in the open, she said, and police threatened to tow them away. “And then it got overloaded in here,” Campos said. 

Now a metal fence encloses the encampment from the main entrance at Castro and Hensley streets down through the railroad tracks under Richmond Parkway. Rows of recreational vehicles, cars and trucks are parked on both sides of a single lane that runs down the middle of the encampment. The residents try to make the most of their community. In front of the RVs, they furnish their living spaces with second-hand tables, chairs, or couches where residents mingle, prepare food or cut their hair. A single, vandalized portable toilet sits at the littered front entrance. 

For Peña, the piles of trash underscore the need for basic sanitation services — and the trash isn’t just from residents. 

“Outsiders come in, bring their garbage, and dump it everywhere because they assume that that’s how we want to live, with garbage everywhere, which is not true,” Peña said.

According to the city’s most recent December count, the Castro street encampment is home to 102 residents. But because of the transient nature of the community, that number is constantly in flux. When nearby cities, like Berkeley and Oakland, clear their RV encampments, Richmond city officials expect a population increase at sites like Castro Street.

After temporary homeless shelters shuttered during the pandemic, Contra Costa County’s population of residents living in RVs and campers increased rapidly in 2020. Still, Richmond’s municipal code prohibited permanent parking of these vehicles on residential streets, and makeshift RV communities began forming in empty parking lots and industrial areas throughout the city, most notably at Castro Street and Rydin Road. Then, water and other supplies were brought in. 

“The City Council decided to do service delivery where people naturally congregated during the early days of the pandemic when the county was not encouraging us to move people,” Milam said. 

Rather than clearing these encampments, the City Council tried to establish permanent RV parking sites that would be managed and serviced by the city. In February 2021, the council approved a site at the Hilltop Mall, after receiving approval from the property owner. Months later, the council approved an emergency ordinance to establish “Safe Parking Sites” that would allow a couple vehicles to park at various churches and nonprofits throughout the city. Both initiatives failed because of public opposition, and the city appears to be pivoting away from permanent parking sites. 

“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not a fan anymore of safe parking,” Mayor Tom Butt said in a recent interview. “I think our objective ought to be transitioning these people into real housing.” 

With the grant from the state, the city plans to transition each resident off of Castro Street. Unlike previous housing resources available to the city, the grant includes a $1.8 million housing trust, a more flexible funding pool that the city can cater to an individual’s needs. 

“If we can find suitable housing space where somebody will take shared housing and their rent would be $1,100 a month, we can set that up for them to pay for at least six months, maybe up to a year,” Milam said. 

Castro Street
At the Castro Street encampment. Desiree Campos, left, and her sister Angelina Peña, right, pose with a friend.

But creating a housing plan for individual Castro residents could be complicated. It will require assessing an individual’s social service needs, like counseling or substance abuse treatment. The grant provides the city with $560,000 to hire a housing navigator to serve this role.

 “Not everybody is in the same place,” Milam noted. “Sometimes it’s a mental health issue where they will need some living support. That’s going to be more than just putting them into an apartment. And so the role that housing navigators have is to find out and work with that client and figure out the best path forward to help them through that process.” 

The city plans to use the remaining funds to maintain the encampment and address living conditions as residents leave the site. 

“The ultimate goal is to rehouse everybody, but understanding that that can’t happen day one. So the first part focuses on securing the site, making sure it’s safe and sanitary,” Richmond Community Development Director Lina Velasco said. 

In the coming months, the city is partnering with Contra Costa County to improve the site by adding toilets, security, and fencing so the site stops growing, Velasco said. A community kitchen also is being considered. An external project evaluator will assess the efficacy of these improvements. 

In one of his recent e-forum newsletters, Butt was critical of the grant’s budget. ”Most of it will be frittered away simply perpetuating existing encampments, leaving only $1.8 million to actually place persons in real housing,” Butt said, referring to the amount dedicated to the housing trust. 

But for people like Peña, who dreams of one day opening a thrift store in the city, the grant is a source of hope. She heard about the grant from other residents at the encampment and is hopeful despite previous “failed promises” from the city. 

“I want to be back with my kids. They’re staying with their father. I would never dare bring them here, so I’m so anxious to get under a roof of my own to be with my family,” she said.

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