Over the past seven years, Oakland’s Wood Street encampment has exploded in size. The encampment spans nearly 25 city blocks with about 300 people living under freeways in tents, RVs and makeshift shelters amid burned-out vehicles, mounds of trash and dirt.
The encampment is now so huge that some residents drive buses and motorcycles to get from one end to the other.
A U.N. report from 2018 called the conditions there “cruel” and “inhumane.” The expert behind the report compared it to the poorest places in the world, decried the lack of access to clean water and toilets, and said the rodent infestations, fire dangers and other hazards should be quickly addressed.
City leaders say the encampment — which spans property owned by the city, railroads and various government agencies — is a crisis, but officials haven’t cleared it, arguing they don’t have enough shelter beds for everyone.
But a solution might be on the horizon. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration just awarded Oakland a $4.7 million grant to come up with a model at Wood Street — one that can be replicated in other cities. The money would fund a new community cabin site or tiny home village at Wood Street for about 50 people.
Newsom paid a surprise visit to the encampment in April to show the “inhumane living conditions too many Californians face.”
City and state leaders say a deadly fire that occurred in April at the site, killing one and displacing five, makes action there all the more urgent. That’s on top of nearly 90 fires at the site for the 12 months through March.
The city wants to build the state-funded community cabin site in partnership with residents and a provider who would offer wraparound services at the site. But the money is insufficient to help all the camp’s residents. If its model is a success, Oakland could win more state funds to help more Wood Street residents. But if it fails to get people into real shelter and housing, it could be a cautionary tale for officials throughout California struggling with mushrooming encampments.
While the city did open a RV safe parking site for 40 vehicles at Wood Street last summer, it’s struggled to house more residents. Over the years, advocates have thwarted city attempts to close the encampment, demanding that the city offer residents adequate shelter or to leave them be. When the city has scheduled sweeps of the site, residents and homeless advocates have blocked workers from entering and removing belongings.
Caltrans has cleared the parts of the encampment on its property three times in the past year and says it will continue to do so if safety concerns, such as fires, continue. Caltrans spokesperson Rocquel Johnson said the agency plans to eventually completely close the parts of the encampment that are under freeway overpasses and work to relocate people to “safer conditions.”
The pandemic caused the city to halt most encampment closures, but now city staff say closures are on the table as long as shelter space is available. But Oakland only has 598-city-funded, year-round shelter beds and an estimated homeless population of 4,000 as of 2019 with nearly 80% of those unsheltered.
“The city doesn’t have the resources to close something as large as” Wood Street, said LaTonda Simmons, the city’s former interim homelessness administrator. She said some weeks she only had 25 open shelter beds out of nearly 600 in the system. “That speaks to the demand and the concentration of homelessness,” she added.
Officials said they do not know when construction on a community cabin site would begin. The City Council has to approve the plans and construction is likely to take longer than other sites because a set of railroad tracks cuts through the property.
Meanwhile, Council Member Carroll Fife, who represents the district that includes the Wood Street encampment, has directed the city administration to study creating an emergency shelter for 1,000 people on a section of the former Oakland Army Base.
Fife said the site — which could offer pallet shelters, a community kitchen, bathrooms and wraparound services — could house many of Wood Street’s residents.
“We can’t just let people to continue to die on the sidewalks while we try to figure out what permanent solutions can be,” Fife said. “We do need permanent supportive housing and where is it? It’s been a struggle just to stand up emergency shelters.”
Despite the problems, Wood Street residents say they look out for each other and have formed a self-sufficient community, building homes using wood panels and doors among the abandoned railroad tracks. Some people keep watch out for fires or other dangers. Residents say the camp is a place where they can live how they want after losing stable homes because of evictions or job losses.
It’s unclear whether residents will be open to moving to a city-sanctioned site. Theo Cedar Jones, a resident at Wood Street for nearly two years who lives in a makeshift shelter, said he doesn’t like the city’s community cabin model and wouldn’t use it.
“Their model is wrong,” he said. “They’re too densely packed together.”
Jones and several other residents want the city and state to give them the land to build their own community, equipped with a kitchen and common area to play music. He currently plays for his neighbors outside his shelter, where a piano, guitar and drums are set up.
The residents would have a social contract, “love thy neighbor and do no harm,” Jones said.
Jones and several residents presented their idea of a self-governed site to city staff and Fife at a meeting last summer.
Lara Tannenbaum, the city’s human services manager, who was at the meeting, told The Chronicle last month that officials will meet with residents and any intervention would be done in partnership with them.
In the meantime, residents say they live in constant fear that they will be forced to leave with little notice. Caltrans removed five people living on its property between 16th and 20th streets after the deadly fire in April and is now installing concrete barriers and fencing to prevent people from returning to the area.
“They come in out of nowhere,” said Ben Murawski, another Wood Street resident, lamenting how agency employees “destroy our homes.”
After Caltrans clears part of the encampment, residents move to another part — sometimes city property. The result is a shuffling with no long-term strategy on how to get people into more permanent, supportive housing.
Clutch, a 40-year-old Wood Street encampment resident who said he has no last name, was one of the five people moved last month. He and the others had lived in four old buses — one of which was destroyed during the move — and a van. Now, they live on city property along Wood Street’s right-of-way.
“We can’t go far,” Clutch said. “Diesel is expensive. And where do we go? We got three buses. Where can we fit that? We are in a catch-22.”