Richmond tire explosion highlights ongoing problem of encampments

Still image from firefight captured in video by Richmond Firefighers Local 188.

A tire that exploded during an RV fire at the homeless encampment at Castro and Hensley streets in Richmond this morning almost seriously injured a firefighter. Richmond Firefighters Local 188, the union representing Richmond firefighters, posted a video to social media showing the tire explode as the firefighter used a fire hose to attack the blaze that had engulfed the RV.

The firefighter from Engine 62 “nearly sustained major, if not fatal injuries” as “a large piece of rubber and other debris” hurtled toward them, officials said. “Luckily the member was not directly struck, and was able to immediately continue the firefight,” they added.

The blaze marked the latest in a growing trend of fires and crime at the problematic encampment, where officials are struggling to relocate people into shelters and other housing. Recently, Child Protective Services called the Richmond Police Department to report a child living at the Castro encampment. Meanwhile, both the RPD and RFD have also been kept busy monitoring other large encampments in the city, including at Rydin Road and also behind Target.

At an ad-hoc meeting on Friday, Aug. 27, Richmond police Chief Bisa French said the RPD had responded 68 times in three months to calls about crimes at the Rydin Road encampment. Other calls, including shots fired and domestic violence incidents, can go unreported, she said. The RFD reported responding to 26 calls for service at the Rydin and Castro encampments in June, July and August.

As first responders and service providers face dangers of entering the encampments, Chief French and Mayor Tom Butt expressed frustration that little has been accomplished to diminish their populations following months of discussion and dedicated funding.

When the encampments were already burgeoning following the onset of the pandemic, Mayor Butt pushed for a proposal to use $560,000 in County funds to build a Safe Parking Pilot Program that could serve as transitional housing for RV dwellers. In March, that plan was thwarted by colleagues on the City Council, four of whom are also members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance: Councilmembers Eduardo Martinez, Gayle Mclaughlin, Claudia Jimenez and Melvin Willis. The Council instead established an ad-hoc committee of community stakeholders to discuss strategies to tackle the problem and also approved using the $560,000 County grant to send a team of professionals to address health, sanitation and security issues at the Rydin Road encampment, and to attempt to convince people living there and at the Castro encampment to move to other transitional housing.

Six months later, the encampments remain and the campers are refusing to leave. County officials offered 22 households living at Rydin Road placements at hotels currently serving as transitional housing, and all declined, officials stated at the Aug. 27 committee meeting. While all Rydin Road campers have been offered shelter beds, only two had accepted, they added.

“I am currently being told from folks on Rydin they aren’t leaving until the police drag them out,” stated an official with the Housing Consortium of the East Bay (HCEB), a nonprofit tasked with providing services to support the safe relocation of encampment dwellers.

Castro encampment last week

Darin Lounds, executive director of HCEB, said service providers have been threatened with violence at the encampments. The nonprofit SOS! Richmond has worked to remove 71.6 tons of refuse from the two sites, but illegal dumping, including abandoned and uninhabited vehicles, persists, particularly at the Castro encampment, Lounds said. Some are releasing waste from their RVs onto the ground at Castro, he added.

Nonprofit providers point out that owners of RV and trailers do not want short-term housing that will separate them from their vehicles. But the encampments are unhealthy and unsafe, not just for first responders and service providers but also for those living there, according to Mayor Butt. The mayor along with Chief French expressed frustration over the lack of progress. While it appears campers won’t leave unless they’re forced, they also can’t be forced into shelters and other transitional housing. But no firm date has been set for when campers must pack up and go.

“We were told by County sources they committed to house 30 to 50 people each month out of these two encampments,” the mayor said, adding, “The commitment has not happened.”

Both the mayor and Chief French believe City Council has been enabling campers to remain and is ultimately “delaying the inevitable” of evicting those who refuse services.

“We’re creating a situation that’s incurring more liability, creating safety hazards,” Chief French said at the Aug. 27 ad-hoc meeting, adding, “They’re waiting for the police to kick them out. Eventually we’re going to get to where we should be already.”

Castro encampment last week

Daniel Barth of Safe Organized Spaces (SOS!) Richmond said clearing the encampments will only send campers into residential neighborhoods.

“The solution is not to impound vehicles,” Barth said. “SOS is trying to help people to have access to properly registered and insured vehicle, so that impoundment is not an outcome. So we must create off-street interim sheltering and longer-term solutions.”

For the time being, officials are looking into the possibility of relocating the Castro encampment north to N. Castro Street, an area that can more easily be managed. Other proposals involve finding other, smaller safe parking RV sites across the city that can be managed more efficiently by city officials and won’t be opposed by neighbors.