Oakland officials are searching for at least two sites to relocate an estimated 100 homeless people living at the city's largest encampment, according to Joe DeVries, assistant to the city administrator.
Everyone must be out by November when the 23rd Avenue bridge, which passes over the East 12th Street encampment, is scheduled to be retrofitted.
But the pending move is complicated by ongoing tensions between Oakland and activists with The Village, whose volunteers are building cabins for homeless people at the current site.
The encampment is a sprawling collection of tents, tarps and lean-tos. But at the southern end, The Village has constructed six one-room wood cabins providing some order to the surrounding chaos.
The Village, a city-sanctioned grass-roots project, is aiming to build a total of 40 of these cabins.
“The day I moved in it was beautiful,” says Leonard Williams, who is 57.
Williams, a former heroin addict, is cradling a tall Colt 45 Malt Liquor. He says he’s been on the streets or in prison nearly his whole life. In a way, this cabin is a step up. “I don't have to worry about rats coming in,” he says.
He says he grew up just a couple of miles from this encampment. His roots are inked across his body — from a "Bay Area" tattoo on his abdomen to an homage to the Raiders spanning his entire back.
William is among the more than 85 percent of Oakland’s homeless who are from Alameda County, according to the most recent Point-In-Time homeless survey.
But now the future of Williams' small shelter is in question due to the pending bridge construction. At this point he seems resigned to moving again — he's just hoping the city finds The Village its own site. He also warns that putting too many people in one spot will "cause friction."
Williams knows what he's talking about — there has been plenty of friction at this encampment — including several rapes and beatings, according to residents.
Then there’s friction between The Village and the city.
The mistrust began when the city tore down a different Village encampment at Grove Shafter Park in West Oakland in February 2017. That encampment went up without official permission, and the city deemed it unsafe.
Then last fall, the City Council granted The Village the 23rd Avenue site for an encampment. But Village lead organizer Anita De Asis, who goes by the name Needa Bee, says that before organizers had arrived, the city dropped scores of homeless people at the site — far more than they could manage.
Since then the numbers at the site have exploded.
“I'm very frustrated,” says Bee, who accuses the city of trying to sabotage their grassroots effort.
The latest blow to The Village came when the city told the group it would have to move again within a year of arriving — because of the bridge construction.
“You're incompetent or you're lying,” Bee says. “And either way, it sucks because what you were supposed to do was vet the land.”
DeVries, the assistant to the city administrator, says he understands why it might look like incompetence or sabotage. But he explains that it's hard to predict the schedule of the Department of Transportation.
It's a big city with "a lot of moving parts," DeVries says.
As for moving other homeless people to the East 12th Street site, DeVries says the city only relocated one group of about a dozen people from a nearby median for safety reasons.
"We're trying to solve this homeless crisis together," DeVries says. "We’re all doing it with good intention."
Despite the skepticism, DeVries says the city is actively searching for new sites: One to be managed by The Village and a second for people with higher needs that would be managed by the city.
He's also hoping to partner with Village organizers to make the transition as smooth as possible.
"Because they've built relationships with people out there and we do know that those relationships are really critical to get people to seek or accept services," DeVries says.
He says case managers will be starting the intake process soon — interviewing each person to determine their needs and the best path toward more permanent housing.
That’s what Leonard Williams says he wants, too. “What I like to do is use this as a stepping stone to get me into a better spot.”
Until all this is worked out, Village volunteers plan to keep building more cabins at the current site. Then the next task will be to figure out how these wood structures will be transported to a new home.