Steven E.F. Brown
November 15, 2011
San Francisco Business Times

The City of Oakland, which cleared Occupy protesters out of a tent city in Frank Ogawa Plaza, has warned campers in other city parks they may be next.

But some park camps aren’t politically motivated, such as one near Lake Chalet, where a group of homeless people sleep every night in tents and under tarps strung up as makeshift shelters.

“Your activities are injurious to health, obstruct the free use of property, interfering with comfortable enjoyment, and unlawfully obstruct the free passage or use of a public park or square,” Oakland warned campers in a Nov. 13 order.

Yet what’s the difference between homeless people camping next to glitzy Lake Chalet, one of Oakland’s nicest restaurants, and protesters sleeping in Snow Park, next to the Regillus, the Bechtel Building, and other ritzy Gold Coast buildings?

A two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the Regillus, which overlooks the park from the third floor, has just gone on the market for $439,000, said Lorri Arazi of Pacific Union’s Montclair office. But she doesn’t expect the protest next door to affect the listing at all.

So perhaps it’s just politics that is the difference. The weary, sunburned homeless men and women camping by Lake Merritt, right outside the fences of McGuire & Hester’s $32 million reconstruction of the 12th Street Dam, don’t engage in politics. They sit almost the entire day under a huge monkey puzzle tree on the back steps and lawn behind the Camron-Stanford House, drinking alcohol from bottles and cans in paper sacks, smoking and talking. And, for the most part, they just want to be left alone to do that. At night, some of them sleep in tents, while others sleep rough in ratty sleeping bags or bundles of blankets on the spotty grass.

The camp even had a whimsical element — a scarecrow figure made on the grass — on Tuesday morning. People walking and jogging around Lake Merritt paused to look at it, while the people who made it sat quietly nearby, drinking and making no fuss.

Spot the Snow Park difference

Snow Park, the second of Oakland’s Occupy camps, ain’t that different. The people there haven’t marched across 19th Street to smash up the big Kaiser building at 1800 Harrison, or to block the steps to the former Wachovia Center, now part of Wells Fargo, which is just across Harrison. They haven’t tagged “Eat the rich” or “Kill the pigs” on any nearby walls.

Instead, they’ve mostly just camped in the park. Indeed some of them moved there to get away from the anarchy and civic antagonism of the City Hall site.

As Oakland has already spent millions of dollars fighting to evict campers from its downtown plaza, I have to ask, is it really planning to spend more money it doesn’t have to clear out Snow Park, which certainly isn’t doing more harm than the homeless tent camp just a few blocks away?

Even a one man camp

And there are other “camps” nearby. Every night, people sleep by the Alameda County Administration Building, across the street from the city’s iconic Art Deco county courthouse. They park a dozen overloaded shopping carts of possessions beside that building during daylight hours. No police come and clear this stuff out, and it’s right there on the sidewalk and police and court officials park next to it before heading across Oak Street into the superior court.

A solitary camper — a man who says his name is “Little Mac” — has stayed in his spot on the 12th Street Dam through all the demolition and construction around him. For years, he slept and defecated and cooked over an open fire in the old pedestrian tunnels under the Frickstad Viaduct. When the city chained those tunnels shut a few years ago, he moved up to the top of the dam, where he sat in the same spot, day after day, chatting with passing pedestrians or with himself.

When McGuire & Hester began demolishing the 1950 viaduct this year, he moved to a spot on the temporary orange traffic barriers marking out the traffic lanes on the new roadway bridge. And there he sits, every day, a familiar sight. He shall not be moved. It may be principle keeping him there, but it ain’t politics.

As near as I can tell, he harms no one, and the police pay him no attention.

If the city is prepared to tolerate this level of “occupation” by legitimate homeless people, why must it then exert itself and spend money clearing out Snow Park? How far would the millions it has already spent have gone on actual helpful services for the many homeless who camp on its streets and parks?

 

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