After devastating fire, Oakland community center says city dropped the ball

The emails to the city grew increasingly desperate.

“Please handle this with serious, deliberate urgency,” Shirley Gee pleaded in January, describing unhoused people camping, cooking and leaving propane tanks up against her Oakland community center. She was terrified the wooden building — where she and her staff feed 2,500 people in need each month — would go up in flames.

That’s exactly what happened. On Feb. 6, about 40% of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay burned.

OAKLAND, CA – FEBRUARY 9: Shirley Gee, Executive Director at the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay is photographed on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Oakland, Calif. The organization’s building in Clinton Park was severely damaged by a fire believed to be started in a homeless encampment next to the community center. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Though the official cause has yet to be determined, firefighters who responded to the blaze just after 1 a.m. reported it appeared to have started in the homeless encampment in Clinton Park, directly behind the community center. Now Gee, the center’s executive director, is accusing the city of failing to take action that could have averted the fire.

The situation underscores how despite Oakland’s efforts to shelter its unhoused residents and mitigate the impact of growing homeless encampments, its interventions and resources pale in comparison to the magnitude of the homelessness crisis.

As encampments explode across sidewalks, in parks and along freeways, pressure is building for officials to respond. The number of fires started in Oakland encampments rose 15% during the first 11 months of 2020 compared with the year before. But the city has an acute shortage of safe, humane places to shelter its unhoused residents — especially with COVID-19 making it dangerous to place people in crowded dormitories.

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And there are just too many camps. Gee and her staff reported fire dangers at the Clinton Park encampment multiple times but were told the city had a backlog of more than 100 other camps that needed a response.

“What’s really raw for me is that it was preventable if people had acted in a more timely way,” Gee said.

OAKLAND, CA – FEBRUARY 9: A burned room housing a computer lab is photographed at the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents the neighborhood southeast of Lake Merritt where the fire occurred, said the city needs to divert more resources and attention to encampments that pose a fire danger or a health and safety hazard.

“It’s tragic what happened,” she said. “I’m glad no one was hurt. And I think going forward we really need to look at what’s the priority of steps we need to take to keep everyone safe, our unhoused residents as well as our sheltered residents.”

Firefighters responded to 17 fires at Clinton Park last year, including one that scorched the community center in October. Gee said staff members have …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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