Push On To Send Homeless Packing & Reclaim Upland’s Memorial Park

The agenda of those hoping to persuade the homeless now living on the streets of Upland to go elsewhere and discourage other homeless individuals from flocking to the City of Gracious Living advanced on several fronts over the last several weeks, culminating in the temporary closure of Memorial Park this week.
A battle of culture, attitude, beliefs and civic policy has been ongoing for several years in Upland over the persistent presence of a core of homeless individuals who have loomed into and out of prominent visibility in the 15.561 square mile city with an official population of 73,732. Prior to 2013, a relatively silent and low-profiled population of unhoused and unsheltered existed in Upland, living as a colony north of Foothill Boulevard and south of Cable Airport, ensconced in an approximately 40-acre expanse of chaparral growing there. An untold number of individuals totaling at least 40 and estimated as somewhere between 60 and 90 had set up camp in the vegetation on property owned by the Bongiovanni family. Because that chaparral was so thick and partially obscured by the In-N-Out Burger, a car wash, and the Hubcap Annie specialized auto parts store, passers-by on Foothill Blvd less than 200 yards away had no inkling that people were living there.
In February 2013, the city’s code enforcement division issued the Bongiovanni Corporation, which has diverse holdings and a construction company empire that is focused elsewhere, a weed abatement notice. The Bongiovanni family, which for years had made no effort to evict the uninvited settlers, responded by having an employee of Dineen Trucking, a Bongiovanni tenant on the northwest end of the property, employ one of that company’s bulldozers to scrape substantial portions of the chaparral, parts of which were inhabited by the squatters. That sent virtually all of those who had taken refuge in the encampment just north of the 1700 to 1900 block of Foothill scrambling. While a handful of those left Upland, most remained in the city, relocating, primarily to two locations: into Memorial Park, slightly more than three miles east on Foothill Boulevard and to a more nearby location somewhat closer to the spot from which they had just been evicted. The latter was a vacant parcel in an area south of the 2100 block of 11th Street at what is Upland’s farthest west boundary, just east of the City of Claremont at the San Bernardino County/Los Angeles County line.
The 11th Street property had no clear owner at that time and was listed as an encumbered asset per an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding. It abutted a fenced large gravel wash separating Upland from Claremont. With no owner to register a complaint about the uninvited habitants, many lived there virtually unmolested for the next eleven months. In January 2014, city officials asserted that neighboring businesses and property owners had complained about the presence of homeless on the vacant property south of 11th Street and west of Central Avenue and went to court to request a temporary restraining and obtained a court order on January 9, 2014, entitling them to give those encamped there a 72-hour notice to remove themselves and their belongings. Notice of the order was served immediately. Police returned on January 13, 2014, informed those remaining that they had to vacate the premises upon pain of their items being destroyed by a bulldozer. On January 14, 2014 four police officers and four city maintenance workers arrived, armed with two huge trash bins and bulldozers. As the bulldozers chortled to life and moved into place to begin clearing the lot, some of the squatters were able to drag their belongings away. The less nimble denizens of the area saw their possessions – bicycles, blankets, clothes, sleeping bags, folding chairs, ice chests, baby strollers and other wheeled carriers – mowed down, crushed and scooped up by Caterpillars and put into dumpsters.
Thus, in less than a year, the city saw a second uprooting and resultant migration of homeless to other locations, again in some cases outside the city and in others within Upland. A number of those moved up to Foothill Boulevard – historic Route 66 – and eastward to Memorial Park. The influx of the homeless exacerbated what for many was an already bad situation. Memorial Park, originally built to honor the veterans of the Spanish American War, was long considered the gold standard in local municipal recreational amenities. It had ballparks for Little Leaguers, once featured an outdoor roller-skate rink and a track for three-quarter midget cars, sported a cannon confiscated from the German Army at the end of the First World War by the U.S Army and passed along to the local National Guard, had a resplendent rose garden built around a sundial that had been cultivated by the Upland Women’s Club beginning in 1959 and a world class tot lot/playground first established in the 1980s that featured a seesaw, merry-go-round, swingset, and a playhouse combination consisting of a slide, jungle gym, chin-up bars, sandbox, spring rider, trapeze rings, suspension bridge and maze that once attracted children and their parents from throughout the region.
As more and more homeless congregated at the park, fewer and fewer of the city’s residents were willing to frequent it. Efforts to feed the homeless by well-meaning citizens who brought in fruit, vegetables, other victuals, sandwiches and on occasion hot meals made the park more attractive to those living on the streets, and the population there burgeoned. Sporadically, city officials sought to enforce an ordinance that imposed a curfew at the park after dark. Nevertheless, the encampment there remained. Compounding the problem was one of the newest features of the park, the skateboard park located at the park’s south end. A facility that had been designed with suggestions by Upland’s home-grown skateboarding icon Steve Alba, the Upland Memorial Park Skate Park was popular enough to attract skateboarders from around the west end of San Bernardino County. Inevitably, the skateboard park attracted skateboarders who considered marijuana use to be an intrinsic element of the sport. As a consequence, drug use near that facility was not unheard of and over time, the restroom there became a point of contact between street drug dealers and their clientele. This combined with the reality of intoxicant use among a significant percentage of the homeless population to create alarm among some of the Upland population who learned of it. Many of those called for action by the police department. Some demanded that the homeless be evicted from the park forthwith and ejected from Upland altogether. Advocates for the homeless and some of the more vocal homeless themselves objected to the blanket demonization of those who had been forced to take up residence at Memorial Park. A stand-off ensued.
Recently, however, the city stepped up enforcement relating to drug activity at the park in general and near the skate park specifically. Ultimately that led to a decision to shutter the skate park entirely and indefinitely on November 7 after Upland Police documented repeated instances of drug use, drug sales and acts of violence and intimidation involving either skateboarders or those near or at the facility.
That emboldened a group of Upland residents who were already contemplating, in their own words, “taking back the park,” meaning not just the skate park but the whole of Memorial Park. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, they scheduled what they called a “clean-up” of the park for December 10, which was just two days before city officials moved to temporarily close the park. Most, if not all, of those taking part in the cleanup were Upland residents. Many are former or current law enforcement officers. That Saturday morning, they fanned out over the park, wearing synthetic rubber gloves and armed with plastic trash bags, picking up litter and trash, at least some of which was the detritus of those who had come to live there. Members of the clean-up crews came into close proximity to those homeless sitting or lounging about the park. There were a few testy exchanges between them, some friendlier greetings and one or two longer conversations, animated or subdued.
Coming as it did just two days before the city had scheduled to close the park down temporarily for the purposes of doing a smattering of renovations, including repairs and tree removals, some of the homeless at the park perceived the clean-up effort as one aimed at delivering a message to them to simply move on. Saturday morning, one of the homeless, a man with a world-weary visage who appeared to be in his middle to late 40s told the Sentinel, “They just want us gone. They have the city to back them up. We have to leave by Monday. If we stay, they’ll have us arrested. There’s no place for us to go.”
Those involved in the cleanup effort avoided directly suggesting that their effort was calculated to drive the homeless out, although there was no mistaking their general belief that the park was not intended to be living quarters for anyone and that the presence of those using it as such was detracting from its availability, value and status as a community recreational amenity.
Rick Nutt, one of the participants in the clean up, emphasized that “We’re here to clean-up. We’re not disturbing anyone who is here and we’re not taking their possessions. We are picking up trash. If there is any possibility that something has any meaning or value to someone, we are leaving it.”
Another of those involved, Steve Bierbaum, said “We are members of the community who feel strongly about the park. I have two ten-year-olds and I want my kids to have a chance to use this park. What we are doing has nothing to do with the homeless. Many of us are involved in law enforcement.”
Bierbaum said that if his group, many of whom coalesced around the on-line social medium nextdoor.com, were looking to drive anyone out of the park, it was not the homeless who had come to live there, per se, but “the transients and thugs. We are engaged here because we want the best for our families.”
Bierbaum said he did not see the closure of the skate park as a positive development. It was others who were interloping, he said, “who hurt the good kids who were using the skate park. They should be free to go there and not have to comply with the demands of the drug dealers.”
Joe Pattison, another participant, decried the destruction and vandalism that had occurred at the park in recent times, suggesting that the damage came about because regular city residents who formerly took pride in the park were avoiding it because of the atmosphere that has developed there and were not around to prevent the destruction.
“The Upland Women’s Club put in the rose garden in 1959,” Pattison said. “It was a wonderful place. It had a sundial in the middle of it. Vandals have just about destroyed the rose garden and the only thing left of the sundial is the base.”
Among the items found on the park grounds by the cleanup crew were syringes, the tell-tale sign that drug use was taking place there. Some took this as a demonstration of how the park has fallen into a state of utter squalor, and it was suggested that the situation could not be turned around without a strong and concerted showing of determination by city residents that they would not tolerate any illicit activity at the park.
One homeless man who was living out of his van at the park on Saturday morning said he is subsisting by working as a day laborer in the construction industry. He said there was no doubt those involved in the cleanup effort wanted him and the rest of the homeless living at the park to simply leave the park and leave Upland for good. The man, who did not give his name, said he knew that there was drug activity at the park but he and the homeless people he associated with were not involved in that. “That’s not what we’re doing,” he said. “Those are other people. We’re not part of that, but they say we are. They are using that as an excuse to close down the park.”
One woman living in the park complained that she already had a rough life and that the complaints of residents had caused the city to make her life worse. “We were using wood for a barbecue to cook our food, and the police came in and gave me a citation for burning wood,” she said. “How can we cook our food?” she asked.
Alan Cash, who lives in Upland and is an advocate for the homeless as part of Team Heart Ministries, was in the park during the cleanup effort on Saturday. He told the Sentinel that there were problems at Memorial Park. “I agree that something needs to be done but 99 percent of that has nothing to do with these homeless people,” Cash said. “There are kids in here who live in the city who come here to buy drugs, to do drugs. Those are the ones creating the problem.” He said some city residents are pushing the city to get tough on the homeless at the park, an approach which includes the plan to shutter the park and arrest those who stay. “I believe there’s a better answer to it,” he said. “This park is a safe place for the people who are living here now. These people need a temporary shelter if you are going to drive them out. People need to sleep. They need to eat. This year, 13 homeless people living out on the streets have died. My mission was coming in here to give people a hot meal at night, just before they would have to lay down to go to sleep. Because of what the city has done, for personal reasons, we’re not doing that anymore.”
Cash said the city had its priorities misaligned and that it was spending more on maintaining an animal shelter than on addressing the needs of its homeless population. “The homeless are not just going to just go away,” he said.
This week it was announced that the city had appointed Eric Gavin, an Upland resident who has beenan advocate for the homeless for some time, as its homeless coordinator at a salary of $3,000 per month to seek solutions.
Gavin told the Sentinel he was gravitating toward the concept of quantifying the homeless problem and then locating separate residential opportunities for each individual living on the streets and had essentially rejected finding a large living facility or shelter to house the homeless collectively. Nevertheless, Gavin said, the city would not look a gift horse in the mouth if a large scale building were to become available.

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