David Bahar, 59, carries a piece of furniture to a friend at the Wood Street encampment in West Oakland on July 19, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Residents at Oakland’s largest encampment of unhoused people got a reprieve Tuesday after a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order, blocking a state agency from evicting them.
Caltrans had planned on Wednesday to remove many of the estimated 200 people who live at the sprawling Wood Street encampment, which stretches from north of 34th Street to 18th Street underneath the I-880 freeway, between Wood Street and the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad tracks in West Oakland.
The land is partially owned by Caltrans while the city of Oakland, BNSF and private owners control other parcels that residents currently occupy.
In his order, District Judge William Orrick cited the tight timeline that Wood Street residents were given as grounds to issue the order without delay.
“Because of the abrupt timeline on which notice appears to have been given to the plaintiffs and the imminence of the closure, this temporary restraining order (TRO) will issue without notice,” he wrote.
Caltrans crews have been working since May 2021 to clean up parts of its land, according to Caltrans spokesperson Janis Mara. But the agency announced July 15 that it would begin closing the rest of the encampment on July 20, with work expected to last until the first week of August.
Many people living at Wood Street said on Tuesday that there wasn’t adequate time to remove their belongings from the area, and that they planned to fight the eviction, restraining order or no.
“We’re planning on staying here,” said Sasha Huckaby, 28, who lives within the Wood Street encampment at one of the structures built by residents and a local nonprofit, Cob on Wood. The small cabins were built in late 2020 and early 2021 out of a mixture of earth, sand, straw and recycled materials. “We're planning on refusing to go.”
Huckaby moved into Wood Street in 2016, when life at the encampment was a lot more chaotic, she said. But, as she began to build friendships with her neighbors, she found a larger purpose for her life.
“It made me get some sort of responsibility, compared to just being out there, just randomly doing what I want to do,” she said. “Here, I help out with legal stuff, or with food stamps or help someone get Narcan. So many different things. It’s like I have a reason to continue.”
She has no idea where she will go if Caltrans is successful in evicting her. It was a sentiment shared by many of the residents living at Wood Street. Caltrans officials said the agency has been coordinating with the city of Oakland and Alameda County to provide residents access to shelter beds, but many residents said they have never received offers for alternative shelter.
“They didn’t offer us anything at all,” said Jessica Huffman, 42.
Huffman lives on BNSF land near an unused railroad trestle. She lost the vehicle where she had been living for the past three years in a fire that broke out on July 11.
Caltrans officials cited the fire as a reason to accelerate its plans to remove the residents and their belongings.
“The department is taking this action to address the increasingly serious safety risks to life, property and infrastructure at the encampment,” Caltrans officials said in the July 15 statement, “including from the fire [on July 11] that prompted the closure of the MacArthur Maze.”
On Tuesday, Caltrans crews were out, removing cars and other debris and placing notices on RVs, trailers, shipping containers and other structures, warning of imminent removal.
Tenant organizer Delphine Brody, who has been working with Wood Street residents for the past 18 months, said the timing was difficult for many residents — not only because of the abrupt notice given, but also because of surging COVID infections among camp residents and organizers.
“For Caltrans and the [California Highway Patrol] to choose this time is unthinkable,” Brody said. “We’re seeing what looks like the beginning of a surge now with the BA.5 subvariant, which seems to be affecting residents here as well. … We have residents who are falling ill with symptoms of COVID.”
Many of the residents said they had no idea where to go, but that it would likely be to disperse to other encampments on public land.
“They have to play whack-a-mole,” said Wood Street resident Theo Cedar Jones, 59. “They squeeze us out of one area, we squeeze into another.”
The city of Oakland received $4.7 million from the state’s Encampment Resolution Funding Program, specifically to clear its portion of the Wood Street encampment, said Karen Boyd, a spokesperson for the city. It’s already begun its cleanup of the land it owns at West Grand and 26th Street in preparation for a housing development for up to 100 formerly unhoused people.
“To move that project, the city must clear this street while continuing conversations with this community on the design of the program,” Boyd said in a statement.
But Wood Street resident Matthew Schatzinger, 45, isn’t optimistic he’ll be able to live in whatever new housing is being built.
“The consideration is not for the people that are here now,” Schatzinger said. “It's for people in the future who might want housing. … And we are not those people. We're being displaced for a solution that’s not for us.”
Outreach teams had reached out to at least a dozen people on Oakland’s portion of the site. Six accepted offers of shelter, Boyd said.
A hearing on the temporary restraining order is scheduled for Friday, July 22, at 10 a.m. The judge will decide whether to keep the order in place or allow Caltrans to move forward with its plans to remove residents from the site.
The order allows Caltrans to remove debris, as long as it’s not related to the planned closure of the encampment. Caltrans spokesperson Mara said crews will continue work there but the encampment closure will not move forward, for now.
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.