Jim McGrath, Ohlone Park meeting, Oct. 24, 2015. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Neighbors of Ohlone Park met Saturday to brainstorm ideas for improvements. Photo: Emilie Raguso

More than 100 people crowded into the North Berkeley Senior Center on Saturday to strategize about how to address problematic behavior in Ohlone Park linked largely to the area’s growing nomadic homeless population.

According to a gardener at the park who wrote a letter to Councilwoman Linda Maio, who organized Saturday’s meeting, “The park is daily becoming a camp ground, strewn with trash, monopolized by groups of ‘street people’ and their animals. They add a threatening element that scares off older residents and families with children who no longer feel safe in the park.”

According to the gardener, dogs visiting the park have become ill after ingesting drugs left by campers. The gardener reported seeing a man smoking crack while children played nearby, as well as the open selling of drugs. There have also been fights involving some of the campers, and an increase in bike thefts and home burglaries in the neighborhood. Other community members noted what appears to be the presence of bike “chop shops” in various areas of the park.

Wrote the gardener: “In the park these ‘campers’ unload their stuff, spread it all around, build structures, sleep there with their stuff strewn all over the place, leaving piles of garbage behind.… I have personally picked up needles, used condoms, pot, pills, roaches, pornography, alcohol bottles & tops, food trash, used clothing, suitcases, furniture dragged over from the street, used toilet paper, a Seattle bank account statement of closure for insufficient funds, sleeping bags, ratty blankets, cardboard, tarps, you name it.”

Community members say debris, including discarded needles, has become too common at Ohlone Park, despite the efforts of both city staff and local residents to pick it up. Photo: Councilwoman Linda Maio’s office

Maio read the gardener’s letter, along with two others, to meeting attendees. She has received more than 60 letters from community members concerned about the state of Ohlone Park, which runs along Hearst Avenue from Sacramento Street to Milvia Street.

Saturday’s meeting included short presentations from city staff who handle homeless outreach, mental health concerns, policing and park facilities. Staff noted that their resources are limited, and said many of the travelers who stay in Berkeley on a seasonal basis are “service resistant”: They are not looking to get off the street or link up with other assistance.

The city has about 200 shelter beds available to the homeless. As of 2013, there were an estimated 1,200 homeless people in the city and those numbers, by many reports, have increased in Berkeley and in the region.

Shallon Allen, who works in the city’s Neighborhood Services division, said the city has definitely seen an increase this year in both the homeless population and also in problems associated with it. She said that’s true not only in Ohlone Park, but also in Civic Center Park, downtown and on Telegraph Avenue.

Shallon Allen (right) explains the city’s approach to homeless services. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Eve Ahmed (center) describes the city’s approach to homeless outreach. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A family plays in Ohlone Park not far from a homeless encampment near the garden. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The city has only two mental health outreach workers to respond to mental health calls and help direct those in crisis to resources. Other city staffers said they regularly make rounds to let the homeless know about the city’s rules regarding camping, curfews, smoking, litter and other issues.

“All of them are spoken to, all of them know what their options are,” Allen said, noting that the city has seen some success, but that many of the problems are ongoing. “There’s just not enough pressure on those violations for them to really want to make a change. It’s difficult. Staff, we chase them around, but we feel like our efforts are cyclical.… We have to do more to stop the flow.”

Many in the audience drew a distinction between Berkeley’s longtime homeless population and the behavior of the travelers, and said they are more concerned about the latter, many of whom have been camping in Ohlone Park and in other areas of the city.

“The problem we have is the grifters who are coming into our city,” one woman said. “These guys are peeing in front of us and leaving a hot mess. Somebody’s got to pay for it, and it’s coming out of our pocket.”

Overflowing garbage cans, without lids, are one problem to be improved at Ohlone Park. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Many of the garbage cans at Ohlone Park are in rough shape. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Ohlone Park has limited bathroom facilities. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Residents said it would make a big difference if the city installed better garbage cans, with lids to help reduce the rodent population, in the park. Some said the park also needs more restrooms, though others said adding better bathroom facilities could lead to an increase in the area’s homeless.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who shared ideas from a recent trip to San Diego where he observed what that city has done in relation to homeless services, suggested the installation of composting toilets to improve the park’s facilities.

Some suggested creating a fenced area near the marina where homeless people could sleep at night, and posting clear signage around Ohlone Park regarding the rules in the area. One man said the city might want to consider a live-in “caretaker” at the park to help enforce the rules, which he said is an approach that has been used in Albany to address similar issues.

One woman said the city might convert at least one area near the community garden where people have been camping to a drought-tolerant plant area, and others said having more family-friendly events in the park would make the area less attractive to the homeless.

Maio said the city is working on a pilot program to provide 30-40 free, secured storage bins, which members of the homeless community could use to keep their possessions safe and out of public space. She also said police should step up efforts to remind campers they cannot sleep at night in the park, as per the city’s municipal code.

Community members at Ohlone Park over the weekend. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Some unattended carts in Ohlone Park over the weekend. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Local residents say they are concerned about encampments like these at Ohlone Park. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley Police Lt. Andrew Rateaver said community members should call authorities when they see specific violations, but that officers cannot easily respond to calls that note simply the presence of the homeless in the park during the day.

Many at the meeting lauded officers for their efforts, but said the department is stretched too thin to deal with the problem adequately. Some said they would like to see the return of officers on bicycles riding through the park. Rateaver said officers would be more likely to patrol the area if they had better vehicle access to the park, and Maio said that could definitely be provided.

Several meeting attendees urged neighbors to try to build relationships with those causing problems at the park to encourage better behavior without involving law enforcement.

“We don’t want to further victimize people who are in a really rough situation,” said one man who advocated for that approach. “Not everybody is an IV drug user. Not everybody is strung out.”

Others said they simply don’t feel safe enough to have direct contact, particularly if dogs, which could be aggressive, are present, or if serious drug use is apparent.

Noted one man, “It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a party problem, and a behavioral problem, where we are afraid to go over and say anything because the behavior is so violent.”

Many in attendance said they have lived in Berkeley for decades and have never seen so many problems in the park.

“What’s happened this year is categorically different from the perennial homeless problem we have in Berkeley,” one woman said.

“It is exponentially worse,” said another. “We’re here because we’re from the Ohlone Park neighborhood asking for help and a solution.”

Residents at Saturday’s Ohlone Park meeting said something needs to be done. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Interim Deputy City Manager Gil Dong listened to community members Saturday. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Residents at Saturday’s Ohlone Park meeting said something needs to be done. Photo: Emilie Raguso

One woman said that, though she believes in a compassionate solution, she does not feel that allowing problematic behavior to happen in the park is good for anyone. She noted that, though housing and the economy may be contributing to a growing homeless population, the city needs to take action quickly to clean up the park.

She said the city should have more than two outreach workers to deal with the mental health needs of the city, and that the city should look into what other jurisdictions have done to address problematic street behavior.

Maio encouraged neighbors to come together to create a “friends” group under the auspices of Berkeley Partners for Parks to help fundraise and organize efforts going forward. She collected contact information from meeting attendees and said she plans to keep the community informed going forward.

“We want to move forward with this and improve things in the park,” Maio said. “I know people born and raised in Berkeley out in the street with shopping carts who are no threat to Berkeley. But needles, defecating in park, using terrible substances, leaving them behind… Fights, knifings: Those are behavioral things. We don’t want to tolerate that.”

She said the city is working on numerous initiatives to address homelessness — including a streamlined service center as well as supportive housing on Berkeley Way — but that those will likely take time to put in place. Maio did not mention a proposal she made earlier this year to curtail problematic street behavior, which council voted to put off after community advocates said it would only serve to criminalize people who are already struggling.

City parks commissioner Jim McGrath said more than 100 neighbors around Strawberry Creek Park came together to take back that park from gang activity by getting organized about being in the park and actively calling police to report crime. He said it’s one model Ohlone Park neighbors might want to consider going forward.

“This is a heartbreaking issue,” he said. “It’s an issue involving human dignity, and it’s an issue around the Bay. It does come down to behavior. It does come down to reclaiming the parks.”

Maio: “We want to move forward with this and improve things in the park.” Photo: Emilie Raguso
Steven Grolnic-McClurg, city of Berkeley mental health manager: “If there’s not somewhere for them to go and live, services alone are not going to solve the problem.” Photo: Emilie Raguso
Several people with carts and other items set up near play areas at the park over the weekend. Photo: Emilie Raguso

After the meeting, 51-year-old Audrey “Mimi” Fairburn, who has been in Berkeley since 2007, and has been homeless for all but three of those years, said the meeting had been difficult to attend.

“It was hard to see us that way,” she said, hearing how local residents discussed some of the behavior they had seen in the park. “What I want to say to them, when they’re saying that they are afraid, is that we would use our influence and maybe have point people that could be talked to. We can’t disappear though.”

Fairburn said she’d like to see the homeless community in Ohlone Park be able to police itself better, and would like to see the city look into creative solutions such as the purchase of “tiny houses” for the homeless. She said she wasn’t sure how to get all members of the homeless community involved in the civic process, but that she had encouraged several people she knew to attend Saturday’s meeting. She said she would also be open to attending meetings with a community task force on homelessness to try to be part of the solution.

“We have to be involved,” she said. “When they started pushing on us, I realized somebody had to be a voice.”

Michael Lee (left) was one of several homeless community members to attend the meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A homeless encampment at Ohlone Park near the community garden. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The park rules are posted but not enforced enough, residents say. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Fairburn noted that shelters are not an option for many she knows, because they feel like “a holding pattern” or may not feel like safe spaces. She said she suffers from PTSD and does not, as a result, feel comfortable in the shelters. Many women she knows are survivors of sexual assault, and also don’t feel safe in a shelter environment. Some of the city’s services can be tough to access, she added, such as a free breakfast offered daily in North Berkeley that is a long walk from the more central location of other services.

Fairburn said police often “push” homeless people from one place to another in Berkeley, which can be tough. One day, as she was pushing a shopping cart up Hearst, she said an officer told her to turn around and go down to the waterfront.

“That’s dangerous down there,” she said. “The people at the freeway are different than us. We pushed them out of here.”

Fairburn said she does not personally know anyone involved in neighborhood crimes such as home burglaries or bike thefts, and believes criminals may be targeting the area around the park so people will blame the homeless. She also said, following Saturday’s meeting, that she is concerned about increased enforcement by police.

“We can’t hide. We can’t get away. There’s nowhere to go,” she said. “We’ll be woken up all night and moved along. No rest.”

Meeting minutes can be requested by emailing lmaio@cityofberkeley.info. Read more about homelessness in Berkeley.

Ohlone Park concerns prompt meeting Saturday (10.23.15)
IKEA donates ‘makeover’ to shelter for homeless families (08.27.15)
Berkeley council postpones street behavior proposal (07.01.15)
Berkeley open to proposals to end homelessness, but questions how to pay for them (06.24.15)
Op-ed: Religious leaders support compassionate services, housing for the homeless (06.22.15)
Berkeley authorities respond to fire near Ashby, I-80 (05.22.15)
Berkeley launches donation boxes for homeless people (05.08.15)
Berkeley council votes to curb impacts of homelessness (03.18.15)
Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)
Streamlined housing crisis center slated for Berkeley (10.01.14)
Homeless move to railroad tracks after Gilman ‘clean-up’ (07.30.14)
Rodents, trash prompt city clean-up of homeless camp on Gilman; residents ‘scattered’ (07.18.14)
City of Berkeley gives Gilman Street homeless a reprieve (07.10.14)
Caltrans fence forces homeless to find new camp (04.10.14)
Berkeley considers ‘visionary’ homeless housing project (09.11.13)
New talks on homelessness in Berkeley start Thursday (08.14.13)

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Emilie Raguso (senior editor, news) joined the Berkeleyside team in 2012. She covers politics, public safety and development. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...