Nino Parker, pictured with his "security guard" dummy, tells a crowd of supporters he won't be complying with the city's attempt to make him move off the Athol Plaza tennis court. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

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Nino Parker stood on one end of the dilapidated tennis court where he’s lived for a couple years, speaking through a megaphone to a group of about 10 advocates who showed up to support his effort to resist the city’s demand that he move his tents and belongings. Lake Merritt sparkled in the sun behind him as he listed out his grievances against the city.

Many of the people gathered around Parker regularly mobilize like they did Monday morning, showing up at homeless camps to stand in solidarity with unsheltered residents against the city’s attempt to make them leave parks, sidewalks, parking lots, and other public places. 

On the other end of the Athol Plaza court, city staffers—including LaTonda Simmons, the city’s interim homelessness administrator, and a few police officers and Public Works staff—were huddled together, trying to figure out whether to go forward with the planned encampment closure or concede to Parker and the protesters and leave for the day.

Athol Plaza, located on Lakeshore Avenue, is one of multiple prominent Oakland homeless camps currently on the city’s schedule for closure. The large camp at Mosswood Park is set to be closed throughout this week, and a small lakeside campsite on Bellevue Avenue was shut down this week too. In addition, many people who lived at the large E. 12th Street camp were relocated recently to make way for a temporary shelter under construction there.

The first city staffer to arrive Monday morning chats amicably with Nino Parker, before tensions escalate. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Parker is one of just two remaining full-time residents at Athol, according to people associated with the camp. That’s unless you count the dummy Parker has fashioned out of stuffed clothing and a baseball hat and wig, who poses as the camp’s security guard and looks remarkably real from a distance. (“He’s the brains and I’m the dummy,” Parker jokes.)

Just a couple months ago, the court was home to a tight-knit community of around 10 residents and others who spent days there. But most of them took the city up on offers to move into shelters or transitional housing at the Lake Merritt Lodge and elsewhere. The city posted notices last Thursday alerting the remaining people that the camp would be closed Monday. 

Parker tore the notices down. He’s unmoved by the city’s shelter offers, and said he planned to “resist” closure at all costs. 

“This is a statement,” he told The Oaklandside on Sunday while hanging American flags around the court ahead of his protest. “It isn’t about me. It’s not the fight of ‘Nino and the tennis courts’—it’s about justice and equality.” 

Parker noted that the majority of Oakland’s homeless population is Black, like he is, and he said unhoused people are subject to the “whims” of the city, getting shuffled around constantly while the city fails to uphold promises to provide permanent housing. 

Oakland operates around 1,700 shelter and transitional housing beds, and while that number is growing, it’s still nowhere close to enough for the city’s 4,000-plus homeless residents.

“Every year they’ll say the same thing,” promising to more adequately address homelessness, Parker said. He also criticized what he called the “vigilantism” of housed people complaining to the city about encampments. When the Athol camp expanded last summer, some people who lived nearby spoke to the media about noise issues and the occupation of the courts.  

At the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, Oakland largely paused encampment closures. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control had urged cities to leave camps alone unless housing was provided, to slow the spread of the disease, unless they could offer housing. Placing homeless people in traditional group shelters was discouraged by health experts because the coronavirus is easily spread in group living situations, and there were outbreaks in some Bay Area shelters. At outdoor camps, however, fewer people contracted the virus. Oakland closed congregate, indoor settings in 2020, and most of the facilities currently being offered to homeless residents have private rooms, which are safer.

In October 2020, the City Council passed its controversial Encampment Management Policy, which declares a majority of the city, including parks and athletic facilities, off-limits for camps. It aims to clarify how and when the city will conduct closures or provide support to camps. That policy, which has been implemented inconsistently, says nobody will be told to leave without an offer of alternative shelter, though what the shelter must entail has been a topic of ongoing discussion. A 2019 Ninth Circuit Court decision said cities can’t punish homeless people, including by making it illegal to live in camps, without offering sufficient alternative housing. 

This week, Gov. Gavin Newsom, traveling the state in advance of his recall election, including a trip to Berkeley where he participated in a homeless camp closure, made headlines by repeatedly saying it’s “unacceptable” for people to be living in dangerous conditions on the streets.

City spokesperson Karen Boyd said the Athol camp is being closed to enable major renovations at the tennis court. 

“Following the closure of the entire park, [Public Works crews] will secure the courts and portions of the border of the park to prevent re-encampment while construction is underway,” she wrote in an email. 

The city has told around 20 to 30 people to leave Mosswood Park this week. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Boyd said remaining residents have declined offers of long-term shelter at multiple city facilities and hotels. She noted that the city installed bathrooms and wash stations at Athol at the start of the pandemic, and provided regular mobile showers and garbage pick-up. At the Bellevue site also scheduled for closure this week, the only person living there, according to the city, left voluntarily after notices went up.

Simmons said Mosswood is being closed in compliance with the Encampment Management Policy.

At Athol on Monday, Simmons urged Parker to come to an agreement with the city: “I’ve pretty much said yes to everything you’ve asked me,” she told him.

“I want to really help Nino here,” she told The Oaklandside, “but we do have to close this park. We’ve held shelter [spots] for all the folks living here. People here have felt disparaged and marginalized, so it’s important that we engage in this work with dignity.” 

The string of closures come at a time when the highly contagious delta variant is causing COVID-19 cases to rise in Oakland, concerning advocates of vulnerable communities about the risks of moving people around. 

Boyd said that’s all the more reason for residents to move to indoor facilities with private rooms, which “would provide safer and healthier living conditions than remaining unhoused in City parks.”

Nino Parker (red hat) discusses the camp’s future with homelessness administrator LaTonda Simmons (pink jacket) and other city staff. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

On Monday morning, city staff and police left the Athol site, then returned in the late afternoon. When they returned in the afternoon and put caution tape up around the court, tensions escalated, and Parker, surrounded by almost 20 supporters, yelled at the city representatives through his megaphone, restating his refusal to leave. 

The workers left again around 5 p.m, giving Parker and the other resident, whose tent is located just outside of the court, at least one more night. (Advocates questioned why the resident living outside of the court needs to relocate.) 

Parker’s supporters stuck around longer, some getting into a debate with a housed neighbor who came by to advocate for the clearing of the courts. 

“These are tennis courts that families want to use,” he said. “Isn’t there another place he can move to?”

“This is someone’s home,” somebody responded.

Large community at Mosswood Park slated for closure this week

At Mosswood Park, an estimated 20 to 30 people are living in tents on the grass, most pitched on the Broadway side, across from a Kaiser Permanente building.

On Monday, workers from Operation Dignity, which the city contracts with to conduct outreach at camps, were talking to Mosswood residents, offering them beds at the city’s transitional housing facilities, including the Henry Robinson Center, the Holland, and “Community Cabins.”

“We’re here trying to get residents into shelter and housing,” said Marcus Carson, outreach coordinator. “We’re doing this all week.”

A group of men sitting under a canopy at Mosswood, who didn’t want to be named in the article, said they’d never move into those facilities. 

“The sheds are miserable,” said one about the cabin program. “That’s not housing,” added another.

One of the men explained that the small space, which residents often have to share with a roommate, was less appealing than living in a larger camp site. But he said he’d love to move into permanent housing, and hasn’t been able to find a job that pays enough to do so, in part because his criminal record limits his employment opportunities. He said he used to live under freeways in North Oakland and got used to being repeatedly rousted by the city and told to move to another block.  

“They kept moving us 150 feet away,” he said, noting that he was often sleeping in front of clearly vacant houses. “You could easily house everyone in this park in those abandoned buildings,” he said. Unlike Parker, the men said they’d relocate from the park if the city makes them. 

The Athol Plaza encampment last year, at its largest. Many residents have since moved into transitional housing. Credit: Pete Rosos

The city previously closed the Mosswood camp just before the pandemic, then shortly thereafter told some residents to relocate from the surrounding streets they’d moved onto, where tensions with neighbors had arisen

Parker shares the Mosswood group’s sentiments about the Community Cabins: “I know a garden shack from a place to live.” He said he’s told city officials, “I”ll go in if you go in!”

Some former camp residents who’ve accepted transitional housing are pleased with their decisions.

John “Lee” Thomas, who used to live at Athol, said he’s happy at the Lake Merritt Lodge, a stately historic building the city is newly renting to use as shelter. It’s one of a few sites, including the converted Clifton Hall dormitory in Rockridge, that the city has been able to open with COVID-19 aid money. Numerous tiny-house shelters will also open soon, at E. 12th Street and in West Oakland

Thomas said he gets three meals a day at the lodge, where he’s able to live with his dog Scrappy. “You get your own private bathroom in your room and two twin beds—you just have to bring your own TV,” he told The Oaklandside on Sunday, while he was hanging out at the Athol courts. “From where I’m at, I’m good.” 

But even though Thomas now lives indoors, he likes to spend his days back at Athol, with “all my friends and people in the neighborhood.” He refers to the courts as “headquarters.”

Vera Sloan, an advocate who came to support Parker on Monday, said those bonds are broken when camps are closed.

“This was for years a thriving, independent community with its own rules and procedures,” she said. “Everybody was offered piecemeal opportunities and spread all over.” 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.