What’s a Music Festival to Do When Its Venue Becomes a Homeless Encampment? 

On its tenth anniversary, Burger Boogaloo reaches out to the residents of Mosswood Park.

click to enlarge Burger Boogaloo returns to Mosswood Park this Friday and Saturday.

Photo by Wild About You Photography

Burger Boogaloo returns to Mosswood Park this Friday and Saturday.

When the Orange County record label Burger Records staged its first East Bay punk rock festival in North Oakland's Mosswood Park in the summer of 2013, a handful of people were living there. The park's homeless population then only consisted of about 10 people, festival publicist Jim DeLuca said, so the festival dealt with the problem putting them up in nearby motels.

Yet as the years passed, Mosswood Park's homeless population only grew. Last summer, before the event, Oakland police showed up and evicted dozens of residents. The action shocked many people — and not all the blame went to the city.

Burger Boogaloo took a PR hit from news coverage and social media's incendiary wrath, although the promoters said they were sorry for the evictions and said that they hadn't known about the city's plans to evict. David Id tweeted at the festival, "Do you really feel pained, or do you want to pretend that you are 100 percent blameless, that the festival wasn't going to displace folks in half of the park, even if the city didn't?" Gina Murrell commented on a thread at IndyBay, "I walk by there regularly and the folks in the park never bother anybody. Sad state of affairs."

The park's homeless population has ballooned since last year's festival, with DeLuca estimating that it is about 40, and Heather Freinkel of the Homeless Action Center guessing that it is more likely between 60 and 80.

What exactly is a music festival to do when its preferred venue becomes a homeless encampment? At this year's Burger Boogaloo, the festival's tenth anniversary and seventh year in Mosswood Park, coordinators want to avoid a repeat of last year's evictions.

"We didn't want the festival to be used as part of a scapegoat or validation for evicting people from the park," DeLuca said. "That happened last year, and to be perfectly candid we haven't even had a full plan for how to deal with how many homeless people had moved into the park prior to last year's festival. It was to the point where we were considering personally helping to move people to a different area in the park ... but before we could do that, the City of Oakland stepped in and straight-up evicted everyone because they were planning youth programs that go on in Mosswood Park the week after the festival."

This weekend, John Waters will return to Burger Boogaloo once again to host the annual celebration of the independent punk rock esthetic, which is expected to attract between 2,000 and 5,000 concertgoers. As in years past, the festival's musical lineup will include acts that laid the foundation for the punk and new wave explosion of the 70s and later, as well as young bands that are carrying the spirit of independent music into the future. Historical bands to watch out for include CBGB favorites The Dead Boys, The Scientists from Australia, and The Jesus and Mary Chain from Scotland. Oakland will be represented by crowd favorites Shannon and The Clams, while Australian newcomers Amyl and the Sniffers will plunder the glam rock sounds of the '70s.

But this year, festival management also has communicated to city officials that it does not want the residents to be evicted, DeLuca said. The festival has partnered with the Homeless Action Center, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to its clients. And festival employees have been volunteering with Punks With Lunch, a nonprofit that provides food and other important services to park residents.

This year's festival layout will be completely restructured to accommodate the existing resident's encampments. When concertgoers purchase their tickets, they will have an opportunity to donate money to the Homeless Action Center.

To accommodate the new layout and also make this year's the festival more accessible, Event Coordinator Marc Ribak and his colleagues pruned the music's footprint from two stages to one and cut the prices of festival tickets. Yet even with these efforts, what we are likely to see this year is a thriving festival with 50 homeless people living between a fence and the edge of Broadway.

Because there is no perfect solution to the situation, Ribak said he considered but rejected not hosting the festival in the park at all. "To stop doing Burger Boogaloo because of the housing situation in Oakland or to move to a different city, I feel like it would be giving up hope for all of the people who come to Burger Boogaloo ... It's like a way of giving back to the musician community to keep doing this event."

Ribak said he volunteers and spends time with Mosswood Park's residents, referring to a few as his friends. The housing crisis has struck a chord with him, and caused him to change his tune regarding Oakland. "I've always loved living here because I feel like it's a real accepting place. ... At some point you start wondering what price is it worth to live in an accepting place which is also throwing people out on the streets. ... That doesn't really sound super accepting."

Dealing with the city has been difficult, Ribak said. At this time, Ribak said, it seems that the city has agreed not to evict residents, but the city is not answerable to the wishes of the residents or the festival, so it is not entirely certain they will not.

"When the city comes and just evicts everybody sometimes we never find those people again," said Freinkel of the Homeless Action Center.

In the months leading up to Burger Boogaloo, festival coordinators held two shows to raise money for residents. They are also trying to arrange for haircuts and showers to be made available to the residents as well, DeLuca said. Finally, Burger Boogaloo's Social Media and Marketing Manager released a book called Poets On Punk. After covering printing costs, DeLuca said, 100 percent of the profits will go to Punks With Lunch.

Park resident Jamie Edspain has been homeless for four years. She knows that the festival has been advocating for the residents and that the folks associated with Punks With Lunch are, in her words, "cool people." She was aware of the park fundraisers Burger Boogaloo has hosted, but said she hasn't noticed the proceeds helping her community. Still, in true Oakland fashion, she is looking forward to the festival, and hopes to hear one of her favorite punk bands playing.

Burger Boogaloo, July 6-7, weekend pass $129-199, Mosswood Park, 3612 Webster Street, Oakland, BurgerBoogaloo.com

j. poet contributed to this article.

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