Oakland city councilman wants military to help clean up streets, more policing of illegal dumping

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An Oakland city councilman is so sick of the trash lining the streets of his city that he’s calling on the military to roll up their camouflage sleeves and pitch in.

In addition, Councilman Noel Gallo told KTVU’s Mornings on 2 that he wants more “police activity” surrounding illegal dumping and related behaviors, such as drug use, blocking sidewalks, sexual exposure to name a few – especially when those activities don’t allow children to safely walk to and from school.

Gallo's crackdown efforts are lauded by many who are tired of the sprawling encampments that are an eyesore and were called out in a United Nations report as "cruel and inhumane." But many others say Gallo's attitude doesn't solve the real problem of homelessness and  just criminalizes the unsheltered.

Gallo said there needs to be a better balance between letting things go and letting the city fall into further disrepair.

“This has been my home for a lifetime,” Gallo said in a Tuesday interview. “And we’re a compassionate city, a progressive one. But we need to keep our streets safe and clean.”

In his view, the city – from the mayor to the council to public servants – has been too soft on illegal dumpers.  

“We have been irresponsible,” he said. “We let it get out of control. We’re not enforcing the policies and the laws we have.”

Gallo said he wants police to issue more citations, make more arrests and physically pick up homeless people and violators and transport them away from schools and put them anywhere else.

“Put them at City Hall,” he suggested. 

Gallo is in talks with several parents whose children attend Oakland Charter Academy, near 42nd Avenue and Bond Street, where there is a large homeless encampment.  

Dean Philip Ellingerg Sr. wrote an open letter describing the “horrible, unsanitary, drug infestation” as the students walk to school. A mother told KTVU that she has heard stories of people dealing drugs, possessing weapons and having sex out in the open at the site, near where her 8- and 12-year-olds go to school. 

In terms of the military, Gallo said he and community members have been cleaning up the Fruitvale, East Oakland flatlands neighborhoods on the weekends for nearly a decade, and it would be great to get some volunteer help from the Army recruits who station themselves at community events anyway.

He said that volunteers from the Coast Guard, the Oakland Police Academy and the Sheriff’s Office already participate, so why shouldn’t soldiers? They could either come in uniform or not, Gallo said.

A spokesman at the U.S. Army Alameda Recruiting Center, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said his superiors knew about the plan and were very keen on possibly getting involved. 

Gallo first proposed this idea publicly last week during a citywide $100-million street repaving effort called “The Great Pave.” 

Mayor Libby Schaaf and a spokesman for the Department of Public Works did not immediately respond Tuesday for comment.

According to the latest data available on the city’s website,  public works crews cleaned up approximately 29,000 piles of illegal dumping in 2016, a 100-percent increase from five years prior. 

Candice Elder, executive of the East Oakland Collective, said she is fully aware of the problems. It's just that she doesn't believe city leaders can arrest or transport their way out of homelessness.

Elder said she has no problem with the first part of Gallo’s plan.

“Military help? Sure,” she said. “If it’s free and they are volunteering and it doesn’t mean extra policing of people, why not?”

But it’s the extra policing of people that Elder strongly objects to.

“Homeless encampments are policed already,” Elder said. “They don’t need any more police.” 

She understands people ‘s frustrations and the complaints. It’s just that she disagrees with arresting people or moving them just because they are poor and unsheltered. Compassion, and finding safe spots for people in city-sanctioned areas are the better solutions, she offered.

“If you move them, they will just be in someone else’s neighborhood,” Elder said. “And that’s not a solution.” 

KTVU's Gasia Mikaelian contributed to this report.