By Mike Kinney
Richmond businesses, community organizations and city officials banded together Saturday to conduct an extensive clean-up of a homeless encampment located behind the wall of the Target store.
Over 35 volunteers participated in the effort involving Collaborising Inc., Target, Home Depot, Yellowsack, CleanAir.Org, Sims Metal, Safe Organized Spaces, Coordinated Outreach Referral Engagement, La Familia, Shots Fired, and the City of Richmond. During the cleanup, members of the Contra Costa County Coordinated Outreach Referral, Engagement (C.O.R.E.) team offered information and resources to encampment residents.
Garbage and debris have accumulated along the Richmond Greenway, a pedestrian and cycling trail, from behind the parking lot of the Target store at 4500 Macdonald Ave. to as far west as behind the County Building.
With help from Supervisor John Gioia’s Office, the nonprofit Collaborising was awarded a grant from the Coalition for Clean Air to begin the clean-up of the encampment in conjunction with California Clean Air Day. The nonprofit joined forces with Target and other businesses and organizations to tackle the clean-up effort.
Collaborising arrived in Richmond in November 2019 when the nonprofit’s executive director Lea Murray and her husband Ramon Quintana moved here from South Florida. Murray said they’ve witnessed Richmond’s homelessness problem expand during the pandemic and decided to take action and begin working with unhoused residents.
“We came with the intention of exclusively focusing on race equity work,” Murray said. “However, when we arrived in the Richmond, we saw homelessness like we had never seen in South Florida where we lived the prior 16 years.”
Collaborising’s work has included the organization of bi-monthly cleanups with encampment residents to remove garbage.
“The Collaborising, Inc. model had always been to use the human resources that were naturally prevalent on the Greenway and at the encampments,” Murray said. “Because I had received a grant from the R3F fund to give gift cards to deserving people who lacked financial resources, I continued to use gift cards as a way to incentivize the community to clean and beautify their living spaces. The problem was I was out of money.”
For Saturday’s effort, Murray credited Robert Rogers, District Coordinator of Supervisor Gioia’s office, as “instrumental” in connecting her nonprofit with the City of Richmond and the Clean Air Day grant. Murray said she was connected with Target representatives by Richmond Crime Prevention Manager Michelle Milam.
“Instead of seeing the unhoused as a nuisance, [Target] wanted to play an active role in improving the community behind them and seeing the unhoused as their neighbors instead of adversaries,” Murray said. “I wrote the Target Good Neighbor Proposal and was partially funded by Target to begin the work.”
Murray emphasized the need to involve corporate partners.
“I am very grateful to my corporate sponsors: Yellowsack, Home Depot, Target and Sims Metal whom donated dumpsters for the event and the scrap metal that they collect is benefiting the unhoused residents who will be paid,” Murray said. “Corporate partners want to demonstrate social responsibility.”
Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. supported Saturday’s project with the purchase of 10 Yellowsack bags to help with the clean-up. A front-end loader made numerous drops of the debris and hazardous materials into the dumpsters behind the Target wall, where the entrance to the homeless encampment started. Yellowsack provided a large truck with a crane to continue to remove the debris from the site.
One encampment resident, who asked to be called Elmo, said there were 14 residents left at the encampment. He said many unsheltered residents left after they received stimulus checks or were fortunate enough to move into local shelters.
“The community must understand that homeless is no joke,” Elmo said. “We cannot let the community see how bad it got here. It is not right. Richmond is our home and community. We in the camp must step up and help resolve the issues of garbage and debris here.”
Elmo said much of the garbage isn’t from the campers, but from illegal dumping.
The nonprofit Safe Organized Spaces was set to take over maintenance of the encampment following Saturday’s cleanup.
“I hope that the residents behind Target will find homes and social services if they choose to move away or out of the encampment,” Murray said.
Local homeless advocate Antwon Cloird attended Saturday’s clean-up and lauded Target and other businesses and community leaders for coming together to make it happen.
“But my question is what’s next?” Cloird said, noting the lack of progress at other large city encampments including one at Rydin Road and another at Castro in North Richmond.
At the end of the cleanup effort, volunteer residents received $500 worth of Target gift cards for their time and effort.