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How Bay Area homeowners ended up paying $20K for homeless camp cleanup

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As Castro Valley’s Lakewood neighborhood learned, people have to go somewhere—and whether it be public or private land, someone must foot the bill

A an orange and blue tent camped along the Bay in San Francisco, with tall shipping cranes visible in the distance. Photo via Shutterstock

Neighbors in Lakewood, an exclusive Castro Valley burg, were shocked to find that they must spend tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to clean up the site of a nearby homeless camp. But they shouldn’t be that surprised—we all end up paying the price for rousting such encampments.

According to CBS SF, the camp first appeared in a ravine in the neighborhood in October 2017, where the occupants remained for almost two years until ousted in August of last year.

Lakewood homeowners didn’t realize that the ravine was partially on their property until their homeowners’ association served them a bill for $20,000 to cover the cost of cleanup.

The coast per household adds up to $300, which is less catastrophic seeming than the full amount, but Lakewood folks are still peeved.

An online petition floated by disgruntled homeowners, which has garnered only 37 signatures so far, blames the property managers and alleges the company “failed to sufficiently inform and involve all the property owners of the problem until it was too late.”

The San Lorenzo Creek ravine sits only a few hundred feet from Fraga Road, which runs along the western side of Lakewood. However, that road is sparsely developed with only a few homes, with most of the neighborhood located further away and out of sight of the former camp area.

According to an old Lakewood HOA blog, the neighborhood has some 75 homes and was developed sometime in the 1990s.

Per last year’s biennial homeless count, Alameda County has over 8,000 unhoused residents, up 42.5-plus percent from two years earlier—and over 6,300 of those people live unsheltered. The count does not delineate how many of those people live in Castro Valley.

California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (Cal Recycle) specifically warns state homeowners that “the decision to allow or disallow homeless encampments on private property is made by the property owner.” The department goes on to say that homeowner are responsible for regulatory standards for either permitting or driving out occupants.

The reason such cleanups can be so expensive? Items like daily garbage, biological and medical waste, combustible materials, household chemicals, used oil, or even abandoned vehicles must be removed. While many homeless residents take pains to clean up their surroundings, without sewer access or trash pickup there’s only so much anyone can do.

There’s an entire industry of specialized cleanup crews who pick up after these encampments. While cities often employ such contractors, they market to private customers too. For example, a company called San Francisco Hoarding Cleanup even composed a borderline exploitative 1,000-word essay on the most lurid and sensationalistic things that can happen on vacant properties, warning of drug labs and “rich sources of disease.”

Lakewood residents say that they hoped the camp was off their property and thus someone else’s responsibility. (In those exact words). But usually that just means the larger public pays for it.

On the other side of the Bay, SF spent over $72 million on street cleaning in the fiscal year of 2019. These cleanup efforts are not exclusively directed at the homeless—people with homes in SF are often just as prone to illegal dumping.

However, the San Francisco Department of Public Works says that some weeks it hauls more than 12 tons of trash from camps, and state agencies like Caltrans spend millions every year specifically removing camps from public land like overpasses and bridges. Still, as homeless lobbying groups often point out, they must live somewhere.

The Lakewood cleanup is set for February.