Despite $1.5M allocated, Richmond encampments remain vexing issue

Despite $1.5M spent, Richmond encampments continue to be vexing issue
An RV at the Castro Street encampment in September, 2021. (Photo by Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

Since March last year, Richmond City Council has allocated $1.5 million in two contracts to address the problem of growing encampments in the city, including unsafe RV encampments on Rydin Road by Costco and at Castro Street by Richmond Parkway, but the problems persist.

At the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 15, a number of city residents and members of Faith and Action East Bay pleaded with council to install safety cameras at the city-sanctioned RV encampment on Rydin Road, where an individual is suspected of setting multiple life-threatening arson fires. That individual reportedly could not be evicted due to the city’s no-eviction policy at the camp.

Last fall, a firefighter escaped serious injury while battling a blaze at the Castro encampment. Since then, the city’s over-stretched police and fire departments have continued to respond to the encampments on a regular basis. In six months from Aug. 1, through Feb. 1, the RPD responded to 72 calls for service at the Rydin encampment alone, including for welfare checks, suspicious vehicles, assaults and disturbances, according to police data. During the same period, the RPD responded 36 times to the Castro encampment, including 4 shots fired incidents.

The issue has vexed neighbors, businesses and also Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who said “there has been no accountability” for the $1.5 million sole-source contracts awarded to nonprofits to address the problematic encampments. The mayor, who was the lone member of City Council to vote no on the funding allocations, says the programs are yet another failure in policy pushed by four members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) who hold a majority on City Council, including Eduardo Martinez, Gayle McLaughlin, Melvin Willis and Claudia Jimenez.

In a Jan. 25 report prepared for council review, city staff said they were “extremely concerned” that some households at the Castro encampment include children. At the time, over 100 people were reportedly residing at the encampment.

“This area continues to have extreme dumping and blight challenges,” the report stated, noting that illegal dumpers who don’t live at the camp are targeting the site. “Complaints are also being received about the impact the encampment on the use of the Bay Trail segment and potential hazards the encampment vehicles driving on the Bay Trail to users of the trail.”

At the Feb. 15 council meeting, several city residents, including two people who currently reside at the Rydin Road encampment, pleaded with the Council to evict a man known to set fires. Rydin Road resident Brenda Bowman said she was thankful that a fellow resident wasn’t present when her trailer was set ablaze.

“Conditions at Rydin Road are becoming extremely dangerous,” said Lea Murray, executive director of Richmond-based Collaborising and a member of Faith in Action East Bay. “There are several people who are gravely ill and there are newcomers to the encampment who are uncooperative and potentially violent.”

How was the money spent?

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the $1.5 million in allocations to address the Rydin and Castro encampments have been successful in convincing campers to relocate into housing. The funds include a $560,000 contract approved in March 2021 to the Housing Coalition of the East Bay (HCEB) to provide program management and housing navigation services at the Rydin and Castro encampments, with the goal of relocating occupants to shelters or housing by the end of that year. Several months later, the Council authorized a $983,975 contract to Rebuilding Together East Bay to provide outreach and support services to people living in encampments on city property.

The Standard requested data from the city on the total number of campers that have successfully been moved to transitional housing since the allocation of funding. City officials said they did not immediately have data to provide and that they were preparing a report to present to the Council.

While there are concerns over whether campers are successfully being transitioned to housing, there are also concerns about new people moving in. In last month’s report, city staff reported on daily complaints from local businesses regarding new vehicles coming to Rydin Road, adding that “there has been an influx of tents in areas that have been blocked from vehicle access as vacancies have been achieved.” Also, the “amount of debris at Rydin is continuing to increase,” the report states.

“The directive of the council was no evictions at the Dec. 7 meeting, which essentially is taken to mean no enforcement of the vehicle code so input is needed on how city staff should be addressing newcomers at the encampment,” the report states.

While the report indicates 27 people had been placed into housing at the Castro encampment, concerns were raised over criminal activity and children living there.

“This area continues to have extreme dumping and blight challenges,” the Jan. 25 report states, adding, “Castro has developed a culture of criminal activity that discourages people from feeling safe to take resources. The neighborhood remains in opposition of having the encampment there.”

As part of the funding allocated by City Council, the nonprofit SOS! Richmond is providing services to about 20 encampments around the city, such as showers and a program that employs current and former unhoused residents to clean up and improve quality of life at encampments and in neighborhoods. Three of the campers employed by SOS! relocated to stable housing last quarter and over a half-dozen are poised to follow, SOS! Executive Director Daniel Barth said.

 “At SOS we are dedicated to the concepts of work, housing and healing to move from the trap of homelessness,” said Barth. He added that part of the funding allotted to addressing encampments has been used to build a process of “coordinated care between the impacted neighborhoods and unsheltered residents to build neighborhood acceptance over time, with the goal of building emergency housing intervention with each of those camps in these impacted neighborhoods.”

Mayor bypasses City Council

Mayor Butt has expressed frustration over the slow pace of progress, charging that there is “very little to show” for the $1.5 million in allocations.

“There has been no accounting for the use of the funds, and the programs have become more oriented towards perpetuating and enabling the RV camps,” the mayor said. “The RPA-controlled City Council excels at talk but can’t deliver when it comes to the walk.”

Mayor Butt said some of the funds were diverted from RPD, which has seen its police force slashed by 26 percent under the RPA’s leadership of the Council.

But the mayor isn’t just making headlines for his criticism, but for actions his office is taking separate from City Council to address the problem.

Mayor Butt recently partnered with Richmond Rotary on a program that aims to match RV dwellers who are reluctant to move to transitional housing with landlords that have empty apartments. Through private donations, the program pays landlords up to one year of market-rate rents upfront to house the homeless individuals and families.

In the first week after announcing the program, a family of six living at the Castro encampment were moved into a 2-bedroom apartment. On Monday, the mayor announced a second family, this one consisting of five people, have been moved from the Castro encampment to a two-bedroom apartment.

The mayor has also launched an effort to hold Caltrans accountable for encampments existing on its right-of-ways, and is lobbying the state to provide more funding to Richmond to address homeless issues.