Jefferson Awards for Public ServiceBy Sharon Chin

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — An Oakland resident who was once homeless is now on a mission to clean up homeless encampments in the city and has trained other volunteers to help him in the process.

Recently, Vincent Ray Williams III instructed volunteers in cleaning up a homeless encampment between 5th and 6th and Broadway near the freeway.

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“It’s really important our unhoused community knows we’re here and we don’t mean no harm,” Williams said.

The group hauled out more than 250 bags of trash, but volunteers don’t sweep out people or their belongings.

“I always share that somebody came through here one time to clean up trash and started ripping the tents down,” he said. “That’s not what we’re about.”

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There are also plenty of safety precautions. “We have to wear disposable biohazard suits because we’re cleaning up human feces and urine,” he said.

Williams started the project, Urban Park Cleanup, last May after he encountered a child living in a van who wasn’t allowed to play outside because the park was filthy.

“And I saw the condition of the streets around me,” Williams remembered.

He recalled what it was like to be homeless, sleeping among others’ garbage.

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“I was treated inhumanely because I would sleep in the middle of the sidewalk and people would step over me,” Williams said.

So he began cleaning at homeless encampments in Oakland every weekend. Today, he has 70 volunteers who’ve helped him clean up more than 15 sites.

Homeless individuals like Scott Brienza appreciate it.

“It means a lot, means you have a more comfortable living condition, feel like you can relax and have some space here,” Brienza said.

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In addition, Williams says the clean-ups create opportunities to connect with the unhoused about mental health, substance abuse and housing services. He’s reaching out the same way someone once helped him get on his feet.

“They know you’re coming with care and compassion, you actually want to help them,” Williams explained. “Everyone is looking for the same thing: someone who cares.”

The approach inspires volunteers like Jackie Teran.

“Mr Williams is incredible. He’s passionate, he’s caring, extremely loving,” she said.

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So for cleaning at homeless encampments, and connecting with those who live there, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Vincent Ray Williams III.