Oaklanders tackle illegal trash dumping in their neighborhoods

The map above shows service requests made to Oakland's Public Works Department between October 2015 and October 2016. With any given view of the map, requests are grouped into five categories, depending on the number of requests in that area. Areas with a higher concentration of requests are highlighted with a darker color. To view photos of dumping sites, click on the camera icons.

Marina Cruz and her goddaughter, Rebecca, walked along Holly Street in East Oakland’s Elmhurst neighborhood like they do every Sunday after mass at St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church. Rebecca, age 5, clutched Cruz’s arm with one hand and waved her toy pony in the air with the other.

Other people walking the same route as the Cruzes might have noticed the trash scattered across the grass and roads, but for these two, it has become the norm. They passed by Holly Park, a familiar place from Cruz’s childhood that she now says is a hotspot for illegal dumping, graffiti and drug activity. They passed by a bag of broken glass that lay open on the sidewalk in front of a house. Finally, they came to an abandoned truck. Its white paint was peeling, its taillights were missing and its back tire was flat. Cruz said it had been sitting in the same place for nearly three months. She looked at the trash that had accumulated in the truck’s bed, piled now well over her head. Fast food bags, cups and candy wrappers surrounded the vehicle and a large green piece of broken furniture lay in the road, just a few yards away.

“You know, emotionally, you’re out a whole day, you go to work, you come home, and all you want to do is kick back and lay your shoes and just chill,” Cruz said. “But you come home and you see all this trash. You get depressed, you feel helpless, like you can’t do anything about it.”

Illegal dumping is a problem that has long plagued Oakland, despite government efforts to combat it. The city defines illegal dumping as the act of leaving waste materials–commonly, mattresses, household furniture and shopping carts–on any property that isn’t designed to handle waste removal.

Between October 2015 and October 2016, more than 20,000 incidences of illegal dumping were reported to the Oakland Public Works department. According to the City of Oakland, that’s a 92 percent increase since 2011.

And some Oakland residents say it’s a problem that disproportionately affects their neighborhoods. The city council districts in East Oakland–Districts 5, 6 and 7–represented 45 percent of all illegal dumping reports to Oakland’s Public Works Agency (PWA) since 2009. District 3, representing West and parts of Downtown Oakland, represented 26 percent. Districts 1 and 4, representing North Oakland and the Oakland hills respectively, made up just 18 percent. As US Census data shows, East and West Oakland generally have a larger population of residents of color and lower income levels than North Oakland and the hills areas.

Cruz said there needs to be a better policy in place to further discourage people from dumping and to add more resources in her area–District 7–that would be used to clean dumping sites faster, “‘cause I feel like our district is the one that’s been hit the most.”

On November 4, she expressed her frustrations at a town hall meeting, participating as a leader of Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a nonpartisan social justice group. Children, their parents, grandparents and neighbors packed Cruz’s church on a Friday night. Picket signs with pictures of dumping sites bobbed above people’s heads as they waited for the meeting to begin. Several attendees wore small black English-Spanish translation devices to understand what was said.

Mayor Libby Schaaf and City Councilmember Larry Reid, the representative for Elmhurst’s district, showed up to hear the residents’ complaints and demands. They joined a panel of guests at the church’s altar. Following a brief introduction from OCO leaders, members of the community passionately relayed stories of how the dumping was affecting their neighborhood.

One woman spoke in Spanish about her daughter: “She constantly tells me, ‘Mom, I’m not happy living in an area with so much trash.’” A man shared a story about containers of human waste and paint sitting in the streets, and his worries about kids breathing contaminated air. In Spanish, he said, “We’re people of color, but we’re not second- or third-class citizens. Our dignity should be respected. Today, I’m asking our representatives to do whatever it takes for there be a solution to clean our neighborhood.”

“Are we in a health crisis?” yelled OCO leader Angel Patiño. “Are we sick and tired of this?” The congregation answered back with a resounding “YES.”

Patiño wasn’t just speaking metaphorically. Dumping sites can be hazards for residents because they can contaminate water, as well as obstruct its flow, which can lead to flooding. According to a pamphlet from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, they can also provide breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitos, and food and habitat for mice and other rodents.

Cecile Carson, vice president of litter and affiliate relations at Keep America Beautiful (KAB)–a nonprofit dedicated to ending litter, improving recycling and beautifying communities–said that dumpsites can negatively affect residents on a psychological level, pointing to research that shows that people in blighted areas have higher levels of depression, which in turn can lead to higher levels of a variety of diseases, “from heart disease to ulcers to just the common cold.”

Socially, she said, illegal dumping in a neighborhood shows a lack of connection with neighbors and a disregard for others. It can lead to people retreating into their homes and buildings.

Illegal dumping also has a “devastating” effect on property values and on interest in residential and commercial properties, according to Carson. Depending on the state, she said, this decline in property values can lead to fewer tax dollars coming into city governments, which can further exacerbate the problem. Carson added that KAB conducted a study in 2009 that showed that realtors avoided areas that have illegal dumping or littering problems.

For OCO leaders, the issue goes beyond health. During the meeting, members of the group brought up the issue of race, arguing that it plays a role in the way the city handles illegal dumping. “The issue we have raised with you tonight regarding chronic illegal dumping in East Oakland is a prime example of unintentional institutional racism, where we see the results of a complaint-driven, under-resourced department, resulting in practically no service to primarily low-income residents of color in the flatlands,” Patiño told the elected officials.

OCO leaders asked Schaaf to have Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity adopt illegal dumping as a priority no later than January 17, 2017, citing Seattle’s Race and Justice Institute as an example. That group found that their complaint-driven system for replacing streetlights was inherently biased against people of color and asked that the department adopt a more proactive policy.

According to an article published August 2016 in Governing, a magazine covering politics, policy and management for state and local leaders, Seattle used to rely on its citizens to report non-working streetlights, much like Oakland relies on its citizens to report dumping. In 2008, then-mayor Greg Nickels toured Southeast Seattle, one of the city’s most diverse census tracts, and noticed broken streetlights were worse there than in most neighborhoods. But very few Southeast Seattle residents reported the issue because they were “less likely to trust the government” and some faced language barriers, according to the article. Utility employees proposed to Nickels that the city take a more proactive solution: replacing the light bulbs based on each bulb’s life expectancy. After the change, Southeast Seattle’s residents had better lighting and customer satisfaction improved among residents in whiter, more affluent areas, as well.

When asked if low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by the dumping, KAB’s Carson said, “It does seem that there are higher reported incidences of illegal dumping in neighborhoods that are socially and economically disadvantaged. It’s hard to determine the ‘why,’ though.”

She said that part of the reason appears to be a lack of community engagement. Describing a hypothetical scenario of illegal dumping in the street in front of a house, Carson said, “If somebody doesn’t feel like they’re connected to their neighborhood, they’ll just leave it there.” She also said that in disadvantaged neighborhoods, people may not have the resources or knowledge to deal with removing or reporting the dump site. Meanwhile, the site grows.

At the town hall meeting, Schaaf said that she had already spoken to the Department of Race and Equity’s new head, Darlene Flynn, and that Flynn would begin working with the city’s illegal dumping task force right away. (Flynn declined to be interviewed by Oakland North.)

In addition to race, OCO leaders brought up the issue of city resources—or the lack thereof—as a contributing factor to the problem. “The Public Works Agency doesn’t have enough workers to do the illegal dumping work. The city doesn’t have enough vehicles to clean the streets. The police department doesn’t have enough officers to respond to the demands regarding abandoned vehicles,” Cruz said to city leaders. “It’s more easy for the city to respond to the demands of the Oakland hills, because the number of demands is less than the flatlands.”

Cruz asked Schaaf and Reid to prioritize cleaning up in the flatlands by providing more trucks and resources from public works. Schaaf responded by noting that the city has leased trucks instead of buying new ones, because it would take too long for new vehicles to arrive, and the need to increase clean up efforts is prevalent now.

“It is hitting your neighborhood more than any other part of the city,” Schaaf said. “We see that. That is absolutely the case, and so we are putting some extraordinary resources behind being more responsive so that we can do more to pick this up.”

But the city’s anti-dumping workforce has experienced severe cutbacks in recent years. An analysis of the city’s adopted policy budgets since 2007 shows that the division of PWA responsible for responding to illegal dumping, Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful, has lost roughly 30 positions since 2007. (They currently have a budgeted staff of about 80.)

As for the Public Works Agency as a whole, the recession took a temporary bite out of the workforce, but it has since recovered. According to city budget documents from 2013, over 140 full time employees had been eliminated from PWA since the October 2008-09 mid-cycle budget, when the city was forced to make cuts due to the economic crisis. But public works staffing has since not only to returned to its pre-crisis levels, but the number of positions has increased by roughly 100.

The former spokesperson for the agency, Kristine Shaff, who recently retired, said that the department aims to respond to illegal dumping clean-up requests within three days. She added that if the problem is significant–if it blocks a public sidewalk or contains hazardous materials, for example–the department will try to respond the same day.

When asked why some residents say the cleanups take longer, Shaff said that, while Public Works runs the call center for all illegal dumping requests, the agency isn’t responsible for responding to all requests–only the ones that pertain to the public right of way. Other requests get forwarded to property owners or other agencies. “We have a great working relationship across the city with all of these different entities,” she said. “But they don’t have the same turnaround or necessarily the same kind of system that we do.”

She also expressed frustration that the department is often blamed for illegal dumping, saying that they are not responsible for the trash people see on the street. “It’s the citizens and visitors and businesses and people of the Bay Area who come to Oakland and commit a crime,” Shaff said. “And they are destroying our neighborhoods. And the more we pick it up, the more they do it.”

“You buy cameras, people shoot them out. You hire security guards, they’re threatened by the people who are [illegally dumping]. You get neighbors to rally up and there’s intimidation and retaliation,” she continued, adding, “The issues are significant and the problems are large.”

These problems have been plaguing Oakland for years, and the city has long been trying to fix them. In 1992, the city council approved funding to create dedicated crews to mitigate illegal dumping. The city established a Litter Enforcement Program in 2001, which hired 8 full-time “Litter Enforcement Officers.” The officers were trained to look for evidence in the illegally dumped materials to find a name or company associated with the items. This process, though successful at first, became problematic when the people whose names appeared on the dumped trash weren’t necessarily responsible for the dumping. The program staffing was reduced over several budget cycles and ultimately cut in 2011.

In 2012, the city also tried to speed up cleanup time with the launch of an app run by a private company, SeeClickFix. The mobile app—which is available for iPhone, Android and Blackberry users—allows citizens to use their phone to report graffiti, potholes, broken streetlights and dumping sites. The app uses GPS information from the cell phone to track the exact location of the trash.

In October, 2013, the city passed an ordinance that declared illegal dumping a public nuisance punishable by a fine of $1,000 per item or a community service obligation. The ordinance also established a monetary reward program for those who report illegal dumping, which was put into place in February, 2015. The program, backed by Councilmembers Noel Gallo (District 5) and Rebecca Kaplan (at-large), rewards residents by giving them half of the dumping fine: $500.

In 2015, the city signed new contracts with garbage companies, adding new bulky trash service. The service allow residents to get rid of large items, such as mattresses and furniture, for free, removing a financial barrier that can lead to these items being illegally dumped. The new service includes an annual bulky pick up option (property owners can schedule appointments with Waste Management of Alameda County) and four free drop-off events a year at the Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro.

This January, the city also passed a resolution to re-allocate $100,000 designated for a pilot mattress collection program towards illegal dumping abatement measures. According to a city report, this funding would go towards measures like installing fencing, lighting, barricades and cameras in dumping hotspots to prevent people from leaving trash there.

In Oakland, some residents have gotten so tired of illegal dumping in their neighborhoods that they have taken the situation into their own hands. Ken Houston, a third generation Oaklander, did just that. Houston started the Beautification Council, formerly the East Oakland Beautification Council, in 2014, a program that aims to rid the city of illegal dumping and graffiti.

“I knew I had to do something when I got embarrassed for people to come visit me,” Houston said. “I have grandkids, nieces and nephews who all have to walk through this just to get to school.”

But Houston realized he couldn’t handle the problem alone, so he approached city officials about the possibility of a partnership for “Operation Clean Sweep,” a project and study that would clean a 2.25 mile stretch of San Leandro Street from the border of San Leandro to 69th Avenue. In lieu of the city’s annual bulky pick-up for the area, Houston proposed that city employees from the PWA, BART, Union Pacific and other volunteers help the council clean the area. The council then maintained the area for 9 months, keeping it graffiti and dumping free, until they closed the program to do a case study.

Houston continues to meet with city officials regularly to find new ways to fight dumping. He is also trying to expand his ideas to neighboring cities, like San Leandro and Albany.

“The problem seems overwhelming, but it can be fixed and is much simpler than it seems,” Houston said. “If you understand the element that you are addressing or fighting, it can be changed or stopped.”

Houston said his neighborhood has had a positive reaction to the work he is doing and he often gets praise from neighbors at the grocery store. The council has also inspired other like-minded groups to combat dumping like Hope Collaborative, a group of community-based organizations that have created a plan to help the Elmhurst neighborhood become a healthier and safer environment.

Other community groups, like OCO, are proposing solutions as well. At the town hall meeting, Cruz asked the city to adopt a new policy requiring that dumpers pay a $1,000 fine and dedicate time to cleaning the streets “because that is restorative practice,” Cruz said. (Currently, the city gives dumpers a choice between the two penalties.)

The mayor said she thought that could be a step in the right direction and that she understood people’s frustrations. City officials said they would consider the policy after checking its legality with the City Attorney’s Office. For now, it remains at the idea stage.

In the meantime, the group is taking matters into their own hands, organizing a monthly community cleanup with a helping hand from the city.

On a cold, windy, rainy Saturday morning in late November, roughly 50 volunteers met in the parking lot outside of St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church, and grabbed gloves, neon yellow safety vests, garbage bags, trash grabbers, brooms and dust pans. Their plan? To walk their neighborhood for two hours to pick up trash along E Street between 98th and 107th Street.

Reid was there contributing to the clean-up efforts and providing water bottles for the volunteers. Special assistant to the mayor, Karely Ordaz, who has been representing the mayor’s office in a series of meetings with OCO, was also present. The clean-up supplies were provided by the city.

Volunteers broke into groups of four to six people. One group included Angel Patiño and Marina Cruz. In just 30 minutes, they cleaned up an entire block, including a large pile of boxes, buckets, garbage bags and loose trash. The only trash they left behind was an abandoned couch, which they reported using the See, Click, Fix app.

As they were cleaning, they caught the attention of a neighbor on his front porch, who spoke to them in Spanish about the trash. “Tiene un monton. Muy feo,” he said. (“There is a ton. Very ugly.”) Patiño invited him to volunteer with upcoming cleanups, which OCO plans to organize every third Saturday.

They could see other groups of volunteers tackling the trash further down the street, so a member of their group, Gabriel Quintero, suggested they use the remaining hour and a half to clean up a hotspot that he drives by on his way home. They drove to Bernhardt Drive, and began tackling the piles of trash they found there, grouping the bigger items–an abandoned stroller, a vacuum cleaner, broken furniture pieces–into a pile.

“I found a used condom, a used tampon, and a loofah,” said Cruz, amused. Quintero found a cup full of pennies that he said he planned to donate to the church. Patiño found a dead animal–ribs protruding through golden fur–in a black plastic bag, tucked away and barely visible in the grass in front of a house.

Patiño said that the help from the city is a start, and that they want their clean-up efforts can inspire hope that the problem is being dealt with. And while it was too soon for Patiño to say if he was happy with the city’s response to their complaints, he did have something to say about the city’s efforts. “We can’t allow it to fail. We as a community can’t allow it to fail. So we have to contribute to [the city] succeeding. Us, what we’re doing right now, is part of them succeeding as well.”

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