The Homeless Quandary

Homeless Camp Dangers: Garbage, Vermin, Fires, Disease, Crimes/Violence, and The Thankless Task for Police Clearing Out the Camps


Dangers associated with homeless camps are ubiquitous and are a primary reason that unsanctioned,  entrenched homeless camps, generally consisting of one or more tents or structures, should never be permitted in any locale.    Homeless camps get set up, become full of garbage or biohazards, and have to be cleared out and removed.   Homeless camps cause many forms of nuisance for neighborhoods and area residents, and are generally the subject of numerous complaints.  When they are removed, the removal invariably results in tensions between the homeless and cities and police.  In this post you’ll see two videos in which a homeless activist confronts police who are in the process of cleaning up a camp. The activist continually refuses to cooperate with the police request that he stand back on the sidewalk, and issues a near constant stream of profanities and accusations.

Partly as a result of the lack of adequate homeless services, shelters and an organized federal, state and local structure to shelter or house the homeless, and partly as a result of homeless people refusing to accept the shelter that cities provide, many homeless sleep on public sidewalks, in parks, and in random camps set up around the city.  Particularly when these camps become entrenched, become collection points for stolen bicycles, end up full of garbage,  or full of urine and feces, they become public health hazards and have to be cleaned up.  Hepatitis A outbreaks have occurred at camps in San Diego and Los Angeles, as reported in this article and this one, about the problem in San Diego and this one about the problem in Los Angeles.  Apparently the problem has also occurred in Santa Cruz as reported here and may be happening throughout the state.  The Center for Disease Control reports that these outbreaks have occurred in the homeless in California, Kentucky, Utah and Michigan.  These outbreaks threaten the nation as a whole.

Given that so many people who are homeless suffer from serious mental illness, it’s not surprising to find people literally living in piles of filth and garbage.  

Many of what we call “homeless camps” are in fact drug addict camps. Workers routinely find hundreds of hypodermic needles when cleaning up these camps, as was the case with the camp cleared this week in North Oakland.

On a rare occasion, a homeless camp may become a “model” camp, as is the case with the “Here/There” camp in Berkeley near the “Here/There” sculpture —  this camp is neat, not full of garbage, and is run in such a way as to prohibit drug use.  So this camp then actually bears more resemblance to what one would expect of a true “sanctioned” campground for the homeless, eg a camp run by the government — such sanctioned camps would be the only ones I would support, since only they would have proper locations, oversight and rules, and authority to back those rules up with enforcement.  Even though some homeless may do well in creating a “model” camp on their own, the fact is that as illegal camps, and with no authority over the land they illegally occupy, they are unable to prohibit anyone from moving in, and this leads to problem people moving in and ruining the original vision.
For the FTCFTH group which started the Here/There camp, they split into 3 groups.  One set up camp at City Hall.  That camp was evicted after two fires occurred, both associated with people who were allegedly not affiliated with the FTCFTH group, one a methamphetamine dealer.  A second FTCFTH group set up camp at Aquatic Park.  That camp began with rules and order, but conditions again deteriorated after people moved in who would not follow the no drug rules, and in the end FTCFTH was forced to concede that they had “lost” the camp. 

This demonstrates the dilemma of all illegal camps, and is part of why, even in cases where homeless camp residents are committed to running the camp with rules, I cannot support any unsanctioned, illegal homeless camp.  If we are to have homeless camps at all, they must be government-run or privately run.  Mike Zint laments that “they want to be everything that destroys camps, we cannot get them out“, and in saying that he reveals the fundamental problem with all illegal, unsanctioned camps.  There is no way to have rules or authority at the camp, precisely because it’s illegal.  You cannot keep people out of an illegal camp.  You cannot stop drug use, bike theft, violence, or any number of problems at an illegal camp, because you cannot regulate an illegal camp.  Only by creating legal, sanctioned camps or shelters with government oversight, can you hope to abate these problems, which is why I think most people, regardless their view on homeless issues, would agree that illegal, unsanctioned camps cannot be part of the solution.

De facto homeless camps pose other dangers — fires have started in many of them, including some in Oakland and one in Berkeley, and these fires pose serious dangers to adjacent structures.  A list of fires associated with homeless camps in the East Bay,  in chronological order:

(1)There was a fire at a homeless camp in Oakland on March 27th 2017, as reported in this article.

(2)  There were two fires at Oakland homeless camps in May and April 2017. 

This article gives information on the fire that occurred on April 13 2017

The fire started at 7:30 a.m. on East 12th Street; five tents were destroyed and a dog died. Everyone else got out okay.”It was very scary. I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. I was worried about our lives,” said Lalonnie Rivera, fire victim.

(3) This article gives information on the fire occuring on May 12 2017. That fire destroyed 20 tents, according to this article.

Some of these may be arson attacks, as explained in this article.

(4) There was also a fire at an Oakland homeless camp in July 2017. 

(5)There was a fire at a homeless camp in Oakland on August 1 2017.

(6) There was a fire at a Berkeley homeless camp on Gilman Street on November 12 2017.

(7)A fire occurred at the camp at Adeline and Stanford on November 19 2017, as reported on the First They Came for the HOmeless FB page.  

(8)On November 25th 2017, a fire burned a homeless camp in Oakland.  

Fire at Oakland Homeless camp


(9)Another fire occurred at another Oakland homeless camp on December 18th.

(10)A fire occurred at the Berkeley City Hall camp on January 11 2018.

(11)Another fire occurred at the same Berkeley City Hall camp on February 6 2018.

(12)Yet another fire occurred at a homeless camp in West Oakland on February 12 2018, killing one person there.Apparently this fire began in a plywood structure that someone had built as a makeshift house — which goes to demonstrate the danger of these wood structures, which many prefer to tents.

(13)Yet another fire occurred at the West Berkeley Encampment at 2nd street on February 16 2018.  

(14) Still another fire occurred at the West Berkeley ENcampment at 2nd street on April 22 2018.

(15) A fire occurred at a homeless camp in Pittsburg on July 9 2018

(16)  A fire in downtown Berkeley in July 2018 was said to have been started by a homeless person who had an open fire.

(17) On July 24th, a fire at the Aquatic park in Berkeley was found to have been started by a homeless woman.

(18) On September 10 2018, there was a large fire at the “Village” homeless camp in East Oakland, which destroyed the makeshift homes of about 37 people. Authorities also discovered a deceased man in a tent at the location, who was not killed by the fire, so apparently a man had been lying dead and rotting in his tent for days at this site without anyone to care or attend to the corpse.

As this comment on the article put it,

The media reported a fire at the same huge mess less than a month ago on Aug. 15. “Smoke could be seen for miles.” If you have ever looked at this place, you have probably seen the big barbecue, the auto repair shop, the unfinished wood structures. The man found dead this morning had been rotting for several days. A media report today quotes one 43-year-old man, “There’s always violence, and now this.” To call this disaster waiting to happen an “intentional community” is pure denial of reality.

(19) Another fire occurred at an Oakland homeless camp at East 12th street on Nov 2nd 2018, as reported here:

(20) Another fire occurred at another Oakland homeless camp along Highway 880 on November 17 2018.   

Other incidents at homeless camps and/or with homeless individuals:

(1) A woman named Laura Jadwin was found dead across from Berkeley High School in January 2017.

(2) A man was fatally shot at an Oakland homeless camp under the freeway at 45th street, on September 5 2017, apparently in an argument over a stolen bicycle.

(3)A woman was found dead at the homeless camp at the Here/There sculpture in Berkeley, in October 2017.

(4)A stabbing occurred at the Aquatic Park encampment on February 15 2018. 

(5) A man was found dead in a truck near 98th Avenue in Oakland, in February 2018.  An article indicated deaths of homeless may not be tracked in Oakland.  A woman interviewed for the story named 5 homeless persons she knew who had died within the past year.

Tamoo, Kilo, Chocolate, Spicey Mike, Ebo,” she said, just counting those she said died in the past year. Two were hit by cars, one was stabbed, another shot in the head. The latest perished in a fire. Their names were memorialized with sidewalk chalk until the rain came. It’s unclear whether they were marked as homeless in county death records.

(6)A man’s body was found (deceased male) on Ashby Avenue near Bay Street (very close to the current homeless camp at Aquatic Park) on March 12 2018.

(7)And at an Oakland homeless camp in the vincinity of 2500 Embarcadero on March 9 2018, there was a hatchet attack that left one man injured.

(8)A homeless man was found deceased in the vincinity of homeless camp in the East Bay Regional Park district on March 16 2018.

(9)At a homeless camp in the area of 89th Avenue in Oakland, NBC news reports that it was discovered that someone in the homeless camp has apparently been mutilating German Shepherd puppies in May 2018. A dog rescue group discovered the mutilated animals.

(10)A man was fatally stabbed at a homeless camp at 5th and Webster Streets in Oakland in May 2018.

(11)A man stated that he had been shot at  a West Berkeley homeless camp on September 17 2018.  

(12) A homeless woman was found dead on the sidewalk at Woolsey Street near Telegraph, on May 28 2018.

That incident was also reported in Berkeleyside.

(13) A homeless man was found dead in Veterans Park in Berkeley in June 2018.

(14) A homeless woman was found dead in a tent on Shattuck avenue, on October 4 2018.  This tent had been at that site for quite some time, as anyone walking along Shattuck would have noticed.

(15) A murder occured at an East Oakland homeless camp on October 22 2018, and the individual charged with the crime, is himself a homeless person.

(16) A homeless man was stabbed with a spear at a homeless camp in West Berkeley on November 29 2018.

(17) A mentally ill homeless man (who reportedly had schizophrenia) fatally stabbed another homeless man,  as they lived in their vehicles and used illegal drugs next to a Richmond Park, as reported in this article.  

Homeless persons killed on train tracks:

(1)A homeless man was killed on the train tracks in Berkeley/Albany in 2014 as described here.
(2)A deaf homeless man was killed on the train tracks in 2016 as described here.
(3)Another man was killed by a train in 2016 as described in this article.
(4)A homeless woman was killed when crossing the train tracks in Berkeley in March 2018, as described in this article.

So within the space of only one month in Berkeley, there were 3 fires at homeless camps and one stabbing at a homeless camp. Within two months, there were 3 fires, a stabbing, and a fatality associated with homeless camps in Berkeley.

REgarding the Oakland camp fire where there was a fatality:

OAKLAND — One person died early Monday after a fire broke out at a homeless encampment West Oakland.

Crews responded just before 5:25 a.m. to the blaze, which appears to be in the 2600 block of Northgate Avenue, just north of Sycamore Street. Fire officials were not available immediately to comment. A yellow tarp at the scene covered the body.

The person is believed to be an adult male.

The fire gutted a makeshift shack, and burned other debris in the area. The homeless encampment is underneath a freeway overpass and near BART tracks.

It is one of the largest encampments in the city and there have been other fires there in the past.

An article about the danger of fire at homeless camps appeared in the SF Chronicle here.
As well, the garbage associated with homeless camps can become a target for arsonists, as reported by the city of Berkeley and also in the East Bay Times, as the city is dealing with a string of small debris fires.  We found charred debris at two different sites of homeless camps in the East Bay. A pile of charred debris was found on the street median at Adeline and Oregon, just a couple days after the homeless camp there was given an eviction notice.

Burned debris, at site of Adeline Homeless Camp


Another are where charred debris was found was  on the Bay Trail near a homeless camp, just across the street from Costco in El Cerrito.

Charred garbage pile at homeless camp by Bay Trail


A fire which began at a homeless camp in December 2017 caused the massive fire that burned up several homes in Bel Air.

Garbage continually piling up in or next to homeless camps is a serious problem — and plagues some camps more than others.  There are almost always large piles of garbage on the sidewalks and ground near the Seabreeze camp, adjacent to highway 80 by the Marina in Berkeley, for instance, as described here:

In addition to these physical problems in the camps, another problem with the camps is that they often have criminals residing in them.  These are dangerous people who should not be permitted to just randomly squat on public land in our cities, but this is in fact what is happening.  The fire at the Berkeley city hall camp on Feb 6th, was caused by someone selling methamphetamine, who had a prior criminal record.  The Feb 15th stabbing, which resulted in the victim being permanently paralyzed, was committed by a man on parole for a felony conviction for a robbery, who had several burglaries on his record.

Then too, living in a homeless camp, or even in one’s vehicle, may put one at risk for shortened life expectancy. THis article indicates that cities (Oakland is mentioned here, there may be others) may not include information about a deceased person’s housing status in death reports, so we may not have data on how many homeless persons are dying on the streets.

At a homeless encampment beneath a highway overpass in West Oakland, Danielle Golden ticked off the names of friends from the camp who had died. She sat in a discarded recliner chair, not far from a tattered “homeless lives matter too” sign.

“Tamoo, Kilo, Chocolate, Spicey Mike, Ebo,” she said, just counting those she said died in the past year. Two were hit by cars, one was stabbed, another shot in the head. The latest perished in a fire. Their names were memorialized with sidewalk chalk until the rain came. It’s unclear whether they were marked as homeless in county death records.

All of these problems — garbage, feces/urine, the danger of fire, disease, vermin, drug use, the collections of stolen bicycles — are part of why I believe “unsanctioned” homeless camps should never be permitted anywhere in a city.  People who are homeless generally cannot do other than sleep in public places, and this must be permitted, but “camps” should not be permitted.  A very simple way to both allow the homeless to sleep in public places but prohibit entrenched camps, would be to pass a law prohibiting anyone from occupying a public place for more than 12 hours.  This would prevent camps from getting started.

When police move in to clean up filthy camps, homeless activists call this a “raid”, and will often respond by refusing to cooperate or becoming aggressive.  Their intent often seems to provoke police, as well as to create situations they can attempt to legally exploit through abuse of the legal system. One technique often used is to refuse to vacate a camp when asked to do so, and then to accuse the city of “confiscating” or disposing of belongings that they have failed to remove by the posted deadline.  What are “belongings” that the city should store and make available to them to pick up at a later time, and what is simply garbage, even biohazardous material, that should be disposed of? The distinction is not clear.   As well, it is not clear what responsibilities, if any, the city has towards people who abandon their belongings on public property.  If I were to take a tent and set it up in a public place, like a street median or a sidewalk, and then fill that tent with garbage and feces, is the city required to “make an inventory” of my garbage, and save it all for me to retreive at some later time? Or can the city simply throw the garbage away?  What distinguishes “belongings” from garbage? And considering that some homeless camps are essentially just drug dens, full of heroin and heroin addicts and needles, cleaning them out can be very hazardous for public works people.

“Why come up here?” I asked.

“It’s easier to be homeless here,” George said. “You get help up here. You get food. Everything I have I was given from somebody. The drugs are here — they are closer and cheaper.”

These questions need to be explored and investigated, but as you can tell from my questions, I think it’s nonsense to suggest that someone who may or may not be homeless, could just put garbage in public places and then require the city or the police department have a responsibility to inventory and save that garbage.

Attorneys representing Berkeley Homeless activists are suing the city of Berkeley alleging that the property of the homeless was improperly seized.  Mike Lee has sued the city in small claims court over seizure of his property.  In each of the cases referred to by these activists and their attorneys, camp residents were given notice to vacate the camp. It seems to me that if they chose to disregard that notice, all remaining property should not be stored at all but simply disposed of, since the camp was never given permission to be set up there in the first place.  It’s different when a tenant is evicted from an apartment that was formerly their legal home — they have legal rights there.  Homeless people who illegally set up permanent camps in public places do not have legal rights to homestead on public property, attempting to permanently appropriate public property, nor to demand that their property be stored if they refused to remove it by the date of the eviction notice requiring them to leave the area.  The fact that one’s belongings could be thrown out if one attempts to homestead on public property, is a good deterrent to such illegal homesteading, and cities should make full use of such deterrents to prevent this nuisance behavior, while at the same time, working to guide homeless people towards places which are appropriate for them to stay.

This problem of filthy homeless camps and the associated garbage, could be greatly reduced if the federal, state and local governments provided adequate government-run shelters or camps for the homeless.  People would be given a minimal amount of space to store their belongings, and would not be able to haul in additional belongings that didn’t fit in  their allotted space.  The homeless would have to face the music that, being homeless, they would not have the right to accumulate unlimited amounts of belongings that they had no space to store.  Anything put on public property would be subject to disposal.  This limitation on how much one can own and store while homeless, would be one of many excellent motivations to people to get out of the state of homelessness and stand on their own two feet, so that they can have more.  Cities should strategize on the benefits of creating such disincentives for homelessness — to poke people out of their inertia and ensure that people dont’ get too comfortable in a lifestyle that in many ways can be a nuisance and burden on others.  Help people and by all means give food clothing and shelter to all in need, but dont’ allow people to remain in a state of unhealthy dependency if they have the ability to live independently.

In these videos you can see a homeless activist named “Stacy” continually harassing the police who are clearing out a dirty homeless camp which has received multiple complaints. Note that he constantly refuses to follow police orders that he stand back on the sidewalk and issues a stream of profanities towards the police.

This is an excerpt of his confrontation with police as written up on the First They Came for the Homeless FB page:

The only problem I see here is that the City of Berkeley and Berkeley Police Dept waited so long to clear out this camp.  This woman has been in this spot for MONTHS, and this camp should have been cleared out as soon as it was put up, when it became obvious that rather than simply sleeping in a public place, this camper was intending to permanently appropriate public property for private use as a residence.

Another problem associated with homeless camps and the clearing out of camps, has to do with the development of “homeless activism” around this situation.  Among the reasons why people end up homeless or even choose to be homeless, we may now have to include the fact that continually setting up illegal homeless camps around the city, may be a new and fun way to cause serial nuisance and give the middle finger to cities, to police, to area businesses and residents who are not happy about these “sudden neighbors”.  In other words, for people who dont’ have enough protests to go to, here’s another fun form of protest — just plop yourself down anywhere and everywhere and dare the city to remove you.  Then scream obscenities at police and city workers when they come to remove the garbage pile you’ve created, and threaten them all with lawsuits.  Yes, this could be a lot of fun for people who just love to cause problems for others.

In addition to the dangers, garbage, blight and nuisance caused by homeless camps in inappropriate places, there are also dangers created by sleeping in the wrong places, as we see in tragic stories like this one, where a homeless individual may have died because he slept in a recycling container.