Cella Jones leaves her spot in the Richmond encampment on April 16, 2019, with her belongings in a blue recycling bin. (Kate Wolffe/KQED)
Cella Jones had left for only a few hours Tuesday morning, but when she returned to her tent -- which had been covered with a blue tarp to keep out the rain -- she found it cut open and her box spring, mattress and water had been moved outside. Homeless outreach staff had been waiting for her to return, but an "abatement" crew had been given the go-ahead to begin clearing one of Richmond’s largest homeless encampments.
Although she returned a few minutes after they began, she was too late.
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Jones’ other belongings were visible, laid bare in her splayed-out tent — a pile of clothing, folders with documents, shoes, dry foods and some dishes. She packed up what she wanted to take while the work crews watched, with loud, beeping bulldozers ready to sweep through when she was done. One member of the crew gave her an empty blue recycling bin to hold what she wanted to keep. She packed her essentials and rolled the bin down the street, leaving the destroyed tent and pile of clothing behind.
Within 30 minutes, the spot where she’d lived for the last year had been cleared, covered by mulch, and landscaping boulders were being placed, intended to keep people like Jones from returning, as she had three times before.
Jones, a lifelong Richmond resident who has been camping since her car was impounded in 2014, had been living at the site at 22nd Street and Carlson Boulevard for nearly a year. About 30 to 60 people had lived at the encampment. Jones said it had worked well for her because it was next to resources at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, or GRIP.
“I’ve been here, close to the facilities, so I can maintain my health and self-worth,” said Jones, who went to GRIP daily for food and to use the bathroom, telephone and laundry facilities, and to collect mail. She said she has tried to get into shelters, but they were often full and can be restrictive. When she left the encampment, she had nowhere to go.
People began setting up tents at the central Richmond site in early 2018. The tents flanked a wide transportation corridor situated near BART and Amtrak lines.
Tim Higares, director of Richmond’s Department of Infrastructure and Maintenance Operations, said the encampment had become a public health and safety risk and a drain on city resources. He said crews had to come multiple times a week to clear sometimes hazardous debris and a growing vermin issue in the area.
“Everyone understands that this is a health and safety hazard," Higares said. "We’re doing this not only for the general public health. We’re doing it for (the homeless residents’) health and safety, too."
However, residents and homeless groups say a local shelter shortage and the wider Bay Area housing crisis have made it tough for them to find permanent homes. The camp had grown from about a dozen people since September during the city’s most recent attempt to clear it.
“We wish we had the ability to house our homeless population, but just like our neighboring cities — Berkeley, Oakland — everyone is dealing with this crisis,” Higares said in an interview with KQED last month.
Johnny Valdepena, who is seeking shelter for himself, as well as his wife and child, said he believes Richmond has invested less in their homeless population than surrounding cities.
“If (CORE) takes us right now to a shelter. They say they’re going to get us in, but that’s what they told us the last time ... and you see where I’m at,” Valdepena said.
Other residents agreed that help was limited. Deshawn Brown had been living at the site for 10 months, and said he’d been approached by CORE, Contra Costa County’s Coordinated Outreach, Referral and Engagement team, a few times before.
He said the interactions were limited.
“Would you like to go to a shelter? You answer yes, and they’ll put you on a waiting list or something like that. ... You answer no and it’s just no, you know?” Brown said.
The encampment was originally scheduled to be cleared in mid-March, but was postponed because the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program was working on opening up a new warming center nearby. That warming center has 30 beds and is a place for homeless people who are referred by CORE to spend the night, have a meal and get warm.
Something that city officials and residents of the camp agree on is that Contra Costa County doesn’t have enough resources to help the homeless in the area.
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who was at the clearing of the camp, said, “(Are) there enough resources for people in Contra Costa County? The answer’s clearly no.”
He maintained, however, that there were enough resources to help the people being moved during the encampment clearing.
Kathleen Sullivan, executive director of GRIP, said the organization is strained enough just to offer the services it currently does and struggles with how to handle its caseload.
The nearest shelter option is the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, which had no available beds for women and children and only three for men as of Wednesday.
It is legal in California to sleep on the street if no other option is available. Richmond also has a local ordinance that allows people to camp on streets and in public places if there are no shelter beds available.
According to Mayor Butt, local groups and the county have provided occupants of the Richmond encampment with services, and they will continue to do so now that the camp is cleared.
“They had it all in one place and could fix it, but they chose not to fix it and let the situation arise. And now they’re going to have us all over the city, and it’s going to make more of a ruckus and more of a problem,” Valdepena said.