'Pride in community': Oakland nonprofit crew cleans up, disinfects homeless camps for COVID-19

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ByLaura Anthony KGO logo
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Oakland nonprofit crew cleans up, disinfects homeless camps
In Oakland, a local nonprofit is trying to help make that city's homeless encampments a little cleaner, and safer amid a deepening pandemic.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- In Oakland, a local nonprofit is trying to help make that city's homeless encampments a little cleaner, and safer amid a deepening pandemic. It's an invaluable program in partnership with the city of Oakland, and other public and private agencies that may soon come to an end, once its federal funding ends at the close of the year.

"Sweep it up, tighten it all up, shovel it up. And then pick up the little stuff," says Ken Houston, a community organizer and activist as he shouts instructions to a small group of yellow-clad workers, who have assembled at one of Oakland's growing homeless encampments.

These are the people who clean up what Oakland City public works crews leave behind, serving a growing homeless community that often feels left behind.

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"I haven't been working in almost four years," said Jerome Senegal, one member of the crew.

Until recently, Senegal lived right where he was standing, part of a sprawling encampment underneath the freeway at 23rd Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, one of dozens like it in Oakland.

Now he's part of team that's doing their part to make it a little cleaner, a little safer.

"It makes me feel like somebody cares and it also gives me a chance to have pride in my own area, to have pride in my own community," said Senegal.

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"This is called Operation COVID-19 Mitigation," explained Houston, the project organizer. "We're supplying them with resources, we're supplying them with dignity and they're helping clean up their own area."

Often, what's left behind after the Oakland public works crews come through includes needles, human waste, diapers and a variety of contaminants.

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Once all the debris is gone, these crews spray the entire area with a COVID-19 killing solution that includes at least 30% hydrogen peroxide - a process that plays out daily, at nearly 50 other illegal dumping sites around the city.

The workers, mostly from the camps themselves, are paid a stipend loaded onto a Mastercard.

Right now, the pilot program is paid for with a $175,000 grant from the Federal CARES Act.

But that money is set to run out on December 30.

"I'm hoping that the new president, Kamala Harris, the DA, anybody that can help advance this program," said Houston. "'Cause it's working. We're killing the COVID-19 virus. We're helping the community. We're cleaning up."

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