Massive Oakland Homeless Camp Poses Major Fire Hazard

Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, there were 158 confirmed fires related to homeless camps reported in Oakland.

San Francisco Chronicle

By Phil Matier

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Oakland city crews have pulled 75 truckloads -- about 250 tons -- of debris out of the sprawling homeless encampment that surrounds the Fruitvale Home Depot in the past two weeks.

"And we still have 50 more tons to go," said Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, whose district includes the Home Depot camp.

By comparison, San Francisco Public Works reports that even its biggest cleanups rarely top 10 tons.

"It shows you just how big this thing is," Gallo said.

Even with the record cleanup, the camp will stay put at least until the end of the year. The city estimates 60 to 80 people live there.

It's not a full closure -- it's a clean-and-clear," said Joe DeVries, Oakland's assistant to the city administrator.

Oakland first announced plans to clean up the area several months ago, after Home Depot expressed serious concerns about worker and customer safety. The store even hired a private police squad car to patrol the parking lot, and Gallo began leading media tours, calling the situation "out of control."

Removing homeless camps, however, is tricky -- both legally and politically. Homeless advocates routinely challenge such cleanups in federal court as civil rights violations. The city has won four out of four challenges so far, but each takes time and money.

"I have another deposition tomorrow," DeVries said.

Plus, in the past, city leaders have been reluctant to appear unsympathetic to the plight of the homeless, but that has changed in recent months as fires at camps have become more frequent.

Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, there were 158 confirmed fires related to homeless camps reported in Oakland.

The fire problem has become so acute that fire marshals have been assigned to homeless outreach teams.

"And this site is a perfect example of how impossible the situation has become for the public and for the people living there," DeVries said.

We had a utility pole get burned in one the of the structure fires last month that knocked out power to the nearby traffic signals," DeVries said.

Fire marshals did a walk-through of the site and found "extremely hazardous fire conditions" amid the broken-down cars, RVs, tents and make-do cabins.

"The risk to human life at the site due to fire danger is unacceptable," Fire Marshal Orlando Arriola said.

"We just had a fire Sunday," Gallo said. "This guy set fire to his RV right in the middle of one of the lots" adjacent to the Home Depot.

Things could have been worse, but "because we had cleaned the area up, the fire did not spread," DeVries said.

Once the cleanup is completed and fire lanes established on the city-owned lot, the tent dwellers will be allowed to return.

"They all moved to the nearby private lot while we clean out the public lot," DeVries said. "Then we clean the private lot, and they all move back to the public lot."

And the pattern likely will continue until at least the end of the year, when the city hopes to set up a lot for 36 RVs on a nearby city lot.

When the lots are finally cleared, one lot owner has told the city he has plans for a Carl’s Jr. restaurant to go onto the site of the biggest camps.

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