After last night’s fire, in which a cobbled-together homeless dwelling was incinerated, sending up a cloud of acrid smoke, charred and melted debris remains spread along the shore of Lake Merritt. The firefighters are gone, the police are gone, the people who built the lean-to are gone. Will anyone clean the site up? And how long will that take?

One person — a man in big headphones I’d seen cutting brush around the site in the weeks before the fire — did briefly return to pick over the ashes this morning. But he wasn’t sticking around to clean up, just salvaging anything that wasn’t burned.

Meanwhile, half a dozen other camps within a stone’s throw of the fire site are still there, even those that returned, like mushrooms after rain, under the road bridge where there was a much more serious fire last year. During the summer, a fire in a camp by the lake disrupted a wedding with smoke. That site, once a park for everyone to enjoy, has since been enclosed in a tall, sharp iron fence, so no one can recreate themselves there.

And, a dozen yards from the fire site, the man who has lived for years under a redwood tree is still there, shouting at phantasms every morning. He sleeps wrapped in a tarp or tent at night, and lights campfires under the tall tree. So far he hasn’t burned the tree down. Employees from nonprofits paid by the city stop by to give him food or tents (he shrouds himself in the tents, rather than assemble them).

We have a new mayor here in Oakland, a mayor who was once homeless herself. Yet nothing has changed where the rubber hits the road when it comes to fixing homelessness in the city.

Charred and molten debris at the site of the fire.
The debris teeters on the edge of the lake.
More burned debris.
Nearby camps under the road bridge.
This sawhorse sign, when flipped around, reads SIDEWALK CLOSED.
A spectacular and destructive fire burned beneath this bridge last year. But the homeless moved right back in. They often block the path, so no pedestrians or cyclists can use the route beneath the busy road.
A nearby one-man camp that’s been there for years, right at the water’s edge.
This man lives and sleeps in a pile of trash. Every morning he shouts and screams. He’s been in this spot for several years.
He also lights fires under the tree and will someday burn it up. If approached — other than by people giving him food or stuff — he is hostile.
A City of Oakland vehicle with two workers arrived Friday morning to give food and another tarp to the man under the tree. “Somebody already gave you some cereal?” one of the workers said to the man. They also investigated the burned site, but only to see if anybody was still sleeping in it.
Getting ready for the next fire. Already a man is slashing away the brush and putting up his brand new (nonprofit provided) tent on the same site.
Right on schedule, city workers arrived Monday morning — not to get the man to move his tent, but to give free food and gear to him and his neighbor beneath the redwood tree.

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