The forested grove on the west side of the park, planted in the mid-80s by Charli Danielsen and her associates, was saved from an imminent threat of fire last week when Berkeley police removed an overnight camper who trashed the place with cigar butts, cans of alcoholic drinks, and other garbage.
I first noticed the accumulation of trash in early August, and assumed that some group had held a party and failed to clean up after themselves. The site is in a sheltered spot on the north edge of the grove, in a place where Parks staff rarely if ever venture. On August 29, I got tired of looking at it and cleaned it up; see my post of that date. I thought that would be the end of it.
Wrong. A couple of days later, there was more trash of the same sort. And the next day, still more. Another Conservancy member and I cleaned it up again. Finally, I visited early in the morning, ready to clean it up once more, and found a man in his thirties sleeping on the ground in the middle of the garbage. My approach woke him. I explained I did not mean to disturb him but had come to clean up the trash. He sprang to his feet and started cursing at me in language that would make a sailor blush, and threatened to end my life then and there if I did not go away. He held his fist an inch from my face, and then spit at me.
I’ve been threatened by experts bigger and better armed than him (long story of civil rights, antiwar, and labor struggles) so I wasn’t deeply impressed. I explained to him quietly that I had no problem with him sleeping there, even thought overnight camping is against the law, but I did have a problem with him smoking, especially while drinking, which not only violates the law but constitutes a fire hazard. And I had a problem with him leaving trash. And that he crossed the line when he spit on me, which I would report to the police. We finally compromised, I thought, with him promising to leave shortly and me determining to return and clean up again. He did leave, I did clean it up again, and I called it in to the Berkeley Police Department. A very nice sergeant came out after a short wait, took my report, and advised caution with the homeless as many of them had mental health issues.
I’ve been around a lot of people with mental health issues (years of going to addiction recovery meetings) and it did not seem to me that this overnight camper was mentally ill. He likely grew up in an environment where spreading trash around was the macho thing to do, and talking violent was the thing a man did when disturbed. I hoped that our morning encounter would persuade him to go spend the night somewhere else.
I was wrong. He was back the next night, and the next, and seemed to leave even greater quantities of trash than before. I put up a sign on the tree over his sleeping spot warning him that if he did not clean up after himself he would be arrested. He destroyed the sign. Another park visitor also encountered him and came away shaken by the man’s threats of violence. On Saturday, September 14, I gave a written report with photos of the man, the trash, and the location to another Berkeley Police Department officer, who told me that he was aware of this individual, knew his name, and would “have a talk with him.” On Monday the 16th, nothing had changed in the park; there he was again, surrounded by cigar butts, matchbooks, 8 percent drink cans, and other trash. I got pessimistic about the BPD’s motivation.
A week later, after a trip out of town to see family, I returned to a very pleasant surprise. The overnight camper was gone. The site had been cleaned up to perfection; not a shred of trash was left. I checked with the Parks maintenance staff; they knew nothing about it. It looks like the BPD stepped in, moved the offender out, and cleaned up the site. If in fact they deserve the credit, I offer my heartfelt thanks to them. It’s been a week since then, and the area remains clean.
I want to be very clear. I have no problem with people spending the night in the park, even though that’s not legal. I’ve been aware over the years of several individuals who have made the park their night-time home. I’ve wanted to do it myself and may yet get there. My problem is with smoking, drinking, defecating, and leaving trash. If you sleep in the park and in the morning you leave it as clean or cleaner than you found it, I will never bother you. But if you trash it, and especially if you create a fire hazard, I will call the cops every time, and I urge every other Chavez Park Conservancy member to do the same.