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Dozens of residents of West Oakland’s sprawling Wood Street encampment have about one week to leave before the California Department of Transportation will be allowed to restart closure of the site, a federal judge ruled Friday morning.
At the hearing, Judge William Orrick lifted a temporary restraining order he’d granted to the unhoused residents in July, which prevented Caltrans from carrying through an announced closure until city, county, and state officials came up with a plan for relocating the people living there.
Orrick said a proposal submitted by the city Thursday evening for temporarily sheltering 30-40 residents was sufficient in order for Caltrans to begin closing the northernmost portion of the Wood Street camp.
The longstanding encampment is Oakland’s largest, spanning several blocks of city, state, railway, and private property. The closure in question will affect the people living on state land, but the city has simultaneously been conducting a closure of the shelters on its property.
Orrick said he empathized with the residents who will be forced to leave their homes, but told them there’s not much he can do to prevent Caltrans from moving forward.
“I recognize that you have a community that has worked for many of you,” Orrick said. “The way the law works, I don’t have the authority—because there is no constitutional right to housing—to allow Wood Street to stay on the property of somebody who doesn’t want it.”
Orrick’s order allows Caltrans to begin its closure Monday, Sept. 5, in the northernmost section of the camp. The agency can then conduct closures of other areas every two weeks after that. The city has said it has emergency shelter beds available spread among six facilities for up to 40 people affected by the initial closure. Residents will be given 72 hours to accept the shelter offers, and the agency can move forward with the closure if they deny the offers, the judge said.
The phased closure comes from the proposal submitted by the city, which also asked for a two-week delay to the start of the process given limited shelter availability.
“The parties appear to anticipate that the City can readily absorb these individuals into its emergency intervention system that is already burgeoning with individuals in need but constrained by available resources,” the city wrote in its proposal. “This is not possible.”
Caltrans, which asked at the hearing to immediately begin closure work, has pointed to urgent fire safety concerns. According to the judge, there have been 12 fires at the Wood Street camp in the past month alone, since the restraining order was instated. The northern part of the camp is the closest to an East Bay Municipal Utility District facility with oxygen tanks, so it’s considered the riskiest.
Residents who gave passionate testimony at the court hearing said they’ve worked hard to reduce fire risk in the area, and are often the first to try to put out flames when the fire department hasn’t arrived yet. They’ve often asked officials for more resources, like a fire hydrant closer to the site, or sanitation services.
“When you talk about reducing fuel loads, amen,” said resident Ron McGowan at the hearing. “I’d like to see one vehicle from anybody—county, state—bringing out trash.”
He also took the public agencies to task for what he said was a vast undercount of the people who will be affected by the initial closure. Lawyers for both the city and Caltrans said there are an estimated 30 residents in the northern section, but neither explained how they got this number and referred to the other when asked about the source.
“It’s absurd that we’ve gotten this far through the process and there’s never been a survey of who’s affected,” said McGowan, who held up what he said was a registry he’d assembled of 80 people living there.
Earlier this week, Wood Street residents sent a letter to local and state officials, asking to be included in the discussions about the future of their site. Attached to the letter was their own plan for improving safety at the camp and supporting the people living there. The plan includes short-term solutions like government-provided fire extinguishers and a safe cooking site to discourage the use of propane, and long-term solutions like a set-aside of public land for Wood Street residents to live in trailers and tiny homes.
“To disband this at this moment without proper housing…it’s just unacceptable,” said resident John Janosko. “We hear a lot of pointing fingers at each other…but no one’s come down here to work with us and really ask what our needs are. Once again we’re in a state of chaos, worried about where all these people are going to go.”
Earlier this week, a Caltrans spokesperson told reporters that the agency would not be providing interviews after the hearing, but would send out a statement on the judge’s decision. That statement has not been released yet.
The government lawyers at the court hearing argued over which agency was responsible for which part of the closure process.
While Oakland’s attorney Jamilah Jefferson said the county should assist with outreach to residents, Alameda County lawyer William Rowell said the county doesn’t have funding from the state or federal government to provide those services.
Orrick’s order requires storage of residents’ belongings, including the RVs and trailers many of them currently live in, but representatives from the agencies all said they have no capacity to store vehicles. The city’s “safe parking” sites for RVs are currently full.
“What do you want me to do about that?” Orrick asked Caltrans’ lawyer Mark Guenzi after he balked at the requirement. “You’re the one who wants to evict people from property they’ve been living on, on your property, for a couple years. You have the right to do that, and they have the right to maintain their property.”
The exchanges followed weeks of what Orrick previously called “hand-waving,” with the city, county, and Caltrans each claiming the ultimate responsibility of addressing the encampment or housing the residents wasn’t theirs, or wasn’t theirs alone.
About a week before the hearing, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office sent a stern letter to the city of Oakland, saying the city has a responsibility to house all Wood Street residents, even though they’re living on state property.
Newsom had previously awarded $4.7 million to Oakland for sheltering the residents, which the city plans to use to open a new “community cabin” shelter at the site. The governor threatened to pull the funding if the city continues to “shirk its responsibility.”
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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.
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