Last summer, Oakland resident Vincent Ray Williams III was working out at a park near his house when he saw a young boy watching him. A brief chat revealed that the boy lived in a nearby van, but was not allowed to play in the park, which was littered with broken glass, used needles and trash. 

The encounter had a profound impact on Williams, 33, who had grown up in the area and had himself been homeless on and off for many years.

Vincent Ray Williams III spent 12 hours cleaning up a park, collecting 50 bags of trash in the process, so a little boy could safely play in the area.

“I just imagined what this boy must see on a day-to-day basis at that park and the huge role it plays in his development,” he said. 

After learning that the next day would be the boy’s birthday, Williams promised him that he would clean up the park. He bought trash bags, a shovel, a rake, rented a leaf blower and went to work. 

“It was just me, my two hands and two feet and 12 hours,” said Williams. “When I was done I had collected 50 bags of trash.”

As a result of this work, the young boy got to use the park, but for Williams this was only the beginning.

That summer, as Black Lives Matter protesters were filling streets around the country demanding justice for George Floyd and other Black people killed by police, Williams thought a lot about what he could do. He felt anger, yes, but ultimately decided that the most effective way to show that Black lives mattered was by rolling up his sleeves and helping his homeless neighbors. Black people make up approximately a quarter of Oakland’s residents, but 70 percent of the city’s homeless.

So Williams began cleaning up other areas of Oakland littered with trash, often posting before-and-after pictures on social media. Soon, people began noticing and asking if they could get involved. 

Today, Urban Park Cleanup, as Williams has dubbed his effort, has cleaned up more than 20 parks and other areas around Oakland and has more than 100 volunteers. It’s also in the process of applying for nonprofit status and is raising money to buy more tools and personal protective equipment so volunteers can work safely during the pandemic.

“When I talk about cleaning up parks, ” said Williams, who spent many years in the foster care system and currently works as an operations manager at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, “I’m talking about cleaning up stigmas and stereotypes so we can build bridges between homeless people and the housed, some of whom think that all homeless people are addicts.” 

Ingrid Schleuning, 18, is a volunteer with Urban Park Cleanup and was attracted to the project because of its approach to working with the homeless. 

“We don’t come in knowing this is what we are going to do, but get to know people and find out what it is they need,” Schleuning said. “The trash cleanup is just the beginning.”

The trash issue is made worse by illegal dumping, which is a big problem in many urban areas, including Oakland, and has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. 

Last year, the city of Oakland launched Oaktown PROUD (Prevent & Report Our Unlawful Dumping), a campaign aimed at reducing illegal dumping through new enforcement and educational programs. It also has a team of officers who drive around neighborhoods in an attempt to prevent and deter illegal dumping and reward people whose tips about illegal dumping lead to successful prosecution of offenders.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the piles of junk in some areas of the city, including West Oakland and near freeway on-ramps.

The unhoused community is frequently blamed, but dumping is often done by housed residents who view encampments as places where they can haul unwanted items instead of taking them to the landfill, which costs money, Williams said.

Williams’ goal is to eventually offer wraparound services that go beyond cleanup, getting people into housing and into treatment. He is already on his way: During a recent cleanup, Williams met a woman who told him she wanted to stop using drugs but didn’t know how. Vincent helped her find a residential program, where she is now receiving care.

“The only way to stem the issue of homelessness and dumping is if people decide that they’ve had enough and get involved in the community and be the change they want to see,” Williams said.

Urban Park Cleanup holds community cleanups every Saturday at 9 a.m. It’s also seeking monetary donations as well as warm weather clothing and tents.