OAKLAND — After being forced into a year-long hiatus by the pandemic, the Junior Center of Art and Science finally was ready to welcome kids back for in-person camps this summer.

Now, those much-anticipated plans are on hold after a fire severely damaged the Junior Center building in Lake Merritt’s Lakeside Park.

While the cause of the fire still is under investigation, it started Sunday evening on the building’s front deck where a small homeless encampment had been set up for at least a week. Junior Center staff smelled smoke two days before the building burned and alerted the city to the potential fire danger, but it doesn’t appear the city intervened.

“To be so close to reopening and to not be able to do it because of something that was preventable just feels really devastating,” Executive Director Dominique Enriquez said.

It’s the second time in two months a community nonprofit has burned, even after the city had been warned about fire hazards in encampments near both buildings.

The two blazes started as the city struggles to implement its new encampment management policy, which prioritizes the removal of camps near homes, businesses, parks and other “high-sensitivity” areas, and prohibits the unsafe storage of flammable materials in camps.

In February, a fire started behind the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay, where a camp had formed up against the wooden building. Executive Director Shirley Gee had complained for months about people cooking and storing propane tanks there, and said her staff rushed outside more than once to put out fires.

City workers visited the camp to remove flammable materials and give occupants food and other supplies, but it wasn’t enough. On Feb. 6, about 40% of the building burned — disrupting the center’s food bank that feeds 2,500 people each month.

The city is working on ramping up enforcement of the encampment policy, which went into effect in January, but it’s struggling under the weight of more than 150 camps, and a backlog of hundreds of complaints, said Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons.

Simmons didn’t know whether city staff had responded or planned to respond to the Junior Center complaint. But she said “everyone” is frustrated with the status of Oakland encampments and is committed to doing better.

“Looking at the magnitude of what we have right now, we need more teams … to effectively deploy the encampment management policy,” she said. “I think it’s just too soon to declare the policy is failing. I think the expectations haven’t been well managed against the resources.”

The policy also has faced an intense backlash from activists who say it is inhumane to displace residents with nowhere to go — especially during a pandemic.

Instead of clearing encampments, the city needs to provide unhoused people with power so they can have light and heat without resorting to fire, said Vera Sloan, an outreach worker with the grassroots group Love and Justice in the Streets.

“Those people just get moved around and end up back in the same place, or in a similarly unsanctioned location,” said Sloan, a single mother who had been considering sending her 7 and 9-year-old kids to a Junior Center camp this summer. “Evictions do not make unhoused people disappear.”

A fire Sunday evening damaged the Junior Center of Art and Science in Oakland. The fire started on the center’s porch, where a small homeless encampment had formed. (Photo courtesy of Michael Hunt/Oakland Fire Department) 

As difficult as it was for staff, parents and children, the Junior Center fire also was devastating for Doug Singleton and Shantell Parker, who said it was their tent that burned in the blaze, destroying their photos, money and personal identification. They said they set up camp on the deck because it had an electrical outlet.

After the blaze, a fire investigator found a space heater and cooking supplies, according to Oakland Fire Department spokesman Michael Hunt. Singleton and Parker, who said they were away when the fire started, acknowledged having a stove but said they hadn’t cooked that day, and nothing was plugged in when they left.

The day after the fire, Singleton and Parker were living in a van outside the center.

“I just pray to the lord that we can make it another day,” 33-year-old Parker said.

The Junior Center, which has been in operation since 1954, offers science, art and technology after-school programs and summer camps for children ages 5 to 14. All programs have been online only during the pandemic, and everyone was excited to re-open for in-person summer camps in June.

But with damage to the exterior walls, front entryway and roof of the center, it’s no longer clear when camps can resume.  A GoFundMe page had raised more than $9,000 for the center’s recovery.

Staff noticed a small encampment on the Junior Center’s deck about a week before the fire, Enriquez said. Though the center is closed to the public, a handful of employees were working out of the building.

On Friday, staff posted a complaint on the city’s online portal, saying an encampment was blocking the center’s front door.

“It also smells of campfire, so we’re worried there is a fire danger too,” they wrote.

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