Wood Street resident LaMonte Ford hugs a friend while Caltrans clears the encampment in Oakland on Sept. 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
The area had long been a forgotten place. That’s what Jessica Huffman found most appealing.
It was around 2019, and she had just been evicted from an encampment near Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Huffman needed a place to go where she could be invisible. She found it, near Wood and 34th streets, under a tangle of freeway overpasses on the city’s western fringe. A locus of industry and transportation arteries, of waste-recycling centers and logistics, the area had also been, for decades, a release valve for the region’s marginally housed.
At the time, scattered stands of cattails and a small grove of eucalyptus trees punctuated the vast patch of dirt where Huffman parked her trailer. There were a few people there, tucked back from the street. More importantly, she said, it’s where police officers told her she could go.
“There was nobody around,” Huffman said. “It was a place where they could just kind of brush us under the rug.”
Over the next three years, some 300 people moved into a roughly mile-long swath of land under Huffman’s freeway overpass. And the settlement — known simply as Wood Street, for the road running parallel to it — exploded into Northern California’s largest community of unhoused people. Its growth became a symbol of a housing market gone awry, as a yawning affordability gap left many seeking refuge in neglected corners of the city.
Authorities knew about the Wood Street settlement for years, and arguably aided in fueling its expansion. But once it came time to close the site down, they were remarkably short on solutions.
As homelessness in California reaches new peaks — more than 171,000 people, according to the most recent count (PDF) — what happened at Wood Street offers a compelling window into why the state’s approach to clearing homeless encampments so often fails to get people housed and what these communities can offer residents, however imperfectly.
Huffman’s spot was near the settlement’s northern edge, which ended in a triangle above 34th Street, where the land narrows between train tracks and warehouses.
Heading south, a dirt access road served as the community’s main artery. On either side, clusters of RVs, trailers and makeshift dwellings lined the road. Inoperable cars and fields of debris, often dumped there illegally, checkered the spaces in between.
Exhaust from the overpass mixed with dust to form a haze that turned the air harsh and acrid. On hot days, trash ripened in the sun, the odor wafting through the camp. There was no running water, and no electricity, except what residents could siphon from electrical panels under the freeway or generate through solar.
“We didn’t come here because we wanted to be here,” Huffman said. “We came here because we were pushed here, and there’s nowhere else we can be. So, we made it the best we could.”
Huffman’s blond hair, streaked with pink, was often swept into a loose ponytail, accentuating her angular face and wiry frame. She, like many in the settlement, formed her trailer into a compound with a half dozen other people for both camaraderie and protection. Wood Street, Huffman said, could be a fractious place — the big group was actually made of smaller groups. Theft was common. Some people made their money illegally.
Huffman didn’t care how people survived. “Just don’t steal my [stuff] or you’ll cause a consequence,” she said.
Her compound was ensconced in an 11-foot-high fence, held in place with metal wire. The half dozen trailers encircled an outdoor living room and kitchen, complete with an electric stove.
One day, someone dumped a truckload of bricks in the middle of a street near the settlement. Huffman loaded them onto the back of her truck, brought them to her camp and cemented them into a chunky, V-shaped patio. “It’s got a custom pattern, way original work,” she said, with a wink. “We did a damn good job.”
At Wood Street, Huffman was able to settle. It was a welcome respite after years of moving her trailer every three days from one residential street to another.
Homelessness, she said, can be a vicious cycle.
“If you don’t have an address, you don’t have a job. You don’t have a job, you don’t have an address,” she said. “And then, you can’t save up money because you got to live every day spending it.”
Knowing nobody was coming to kick her out meant Huffman could get other needs met — laundry, food, finding a place to shower — and even land a job. She worked graveyards packing produce boxes and meal kits at Good Eggs’ distribution warehouse near Wood Street.
“That was such a big, important thing. And there is no way I could have pulled it off otherwise,” Huffman said. “You can’t be moving around every three days like they want you to do and be dependable anywhere else.”
Stability also enabled residents to develop shared resources in the form of two community centers within the camp: Cob on Wood, and the Commons. The centers helped smooth divisions within the camp, allowing residents at Wood Street to cohere into something more like one community.
A group of nonprofits and volunteers in early 2021 helped residents build Cob on Wood near the middle of the settlement, turning it into a surprising and incongruous oasis. Structures made of mud and recycled materials — which residents jokingly referred to as “hobbit houses” — surrounded a community garden and an outdoor kitchen. Residents used the homespun buildings to house a free store, a medical supply shed, a bathroom and a shower.
Xochitl Bernadette Moreno, co-founder of Essential Food and Medicine, helped mastermind the project.
“[Cob on Wood] was birthed from the visions of the residents here around how to meet some of the basic needs that people who are unhoused have in this community,” Moreno said. “Places like Wood Street, and these types of communities that are built from the rubble of society, are really important for unhoused people to create systems of safety, systems of community, because state solutions aren’t providing that.”
Huffman had been unhoused, on and off, for the better part of her 43 years. She said she left her small, Texas hometown as an adolescent, hitchhiking her way across the country. At 17, she stopped in San Francisco, captivated by the city’s Victorian houses and rolling hills.
“It’s not like that where I’m from, which is like flatland boring,” she said, recalling the awe of her first impressions. “It’s beautiful out here.”
In San Francisco, Huffman hung out on Haight Street with other people her age and began experimenting with psychedelics and, later, crack cocaine and speed. Over the next two decades, she had periods of relative stability — a job, housing, sobriety — that would be shattered by a more damaging addiction: abusive partners.
“I decided that the last time my ex was going to whoop my [butt] was the last time,” she said of her most recent bout with homelessness. “I would rather be safe than dealing with that [stuff].”
After more than three years at Wood Street, she finally had enough money to move — if only a landlord would accept her spotty rental history and lack of a credit score.
“I’m just not very well qualified,” she lamented. “I don’t have bad credit. I just have no credit.”
Huffman wasn’t looking for anything fancy: a house with a yard. Somewhere close to work. Working plumbing. Electricity. “Not much,” she said. “Probably normal to everybody else. For me, it’d be a dream come true.”
Then, on July 11, 2022, a fire changed everything.
It was around 10 a.m. Huffman saw several police cars in the area and went to ask them why they were there (officials said later they were looking for stolen and abandoned cars). Before she could get an answer, smoke began rising near the train trestle, swirling into a thick, black column. It was coming from her compound.
She ran back. Officers swarmed around her, she said: “They were just ushering us out. Like, go, go, go, go, go!”
But Huffman saw that faces were missing from her crew. One — a woman named DeeDee — had a tent under the wooden train trestle, which was engulfed in flames. She pleaded with the officers to let her go there. They refused. Another friend began shouting in their faces, causing enough of a distraction for Huffman to slip past the officers.
She found DeeDee still asleep in her tent.
“Fire was touching her face,” Huffman shuddered. “She would have burned — not even smoke inhalation — she would have burned to death.”
Her voice cracked remembering the moment. “That could have been any one of us,” she said.
Huffman’s truck burned, and the side of her trailer melted from the heat. Her bed momentarily caught on fire, but firefighters doused the flames before the fire could spread further. Others weren’t as lucky. Her partner, Matthew Schatzinger, lost the mini school bus he lived in. Another one of their compound members, Shaun Ryan, watched his trailer and all his belongings turn to ash.
Officials later said five RVs burned in the two-alarm blaze. The cause of the fire was undetermined, but a spokesperson for the fire department said it started in an RV.
Inside Huffman’s compound, soot blackened every surface. The only remnants of the outdoor living room and kitchen were charred wood and twisted metal.
Then, less than a week later, Caltrans posted five-day eviction notices.
To Huffman, it felt like a cruel joke. Bits of soot and ash were still raining over the camp, sticking to Huffman’s skin and collecting in the crevices of her face, neck and hands. The sickly smell of burned plastics hung heavy in the air. She hadn’t had time yet to take stock of her losses. Now, she’d lose everything.
Questions raced through her mind: Where would she move now? How would she get there? What could she take with her? And, perhaps most importantly, how could she do all that and still make it to work?
“I can’t crawl out of poverty if they make me have to constantly put my job and my income and my everything on emergency hold,” she said, bitterly. “It’s like they just want us to die or something.”
When Caltrans issued the eviction notices, John Janosko sprang into action. Tall, with short dreadlocks and an effusive smile, Janosko could be mistaken for the mayor of Wood Street — or, at least, president of its improvement association, if such a thing existed.
His trailer sat at the entrance to the Commons. He had built out the space into a maze of rooms made from plywood and other materials. Beyond it, he arranged couches and outdoor furniture into an open-air living room that doubled as a community meeting space with a communal kitchen tucked into one corner.
“You know how you have that family member where you always go to Thanksgiving or you always spend Christmas?” Janosko said. “So, that would be me.”
For the previous three years, the Commons had served as the main gateway into the larger Wood Street settlement, which was mostly tucked back from the street. Across from Raimondi Park, where kids played football and soccer, the Commons was the most visible part of the settlement, and the most accessible.
Established nonprofits like LifeLong Medical Care and Operation Dignity routinely came by to provide health care and shower services for Wood Street residents, and volunteer advocates offered rides to medical appointments or help with paperwork to get into housing. Church groups and other organizations stopped by almost daily with boxes of food.
Janosko had worked hard to make the Commons homey. Succulent-filled planters dotted the space. Pop-up canopies shaded a few of the outdoor seating areas. A changing rotation of art decorated the walkways.
“All this stuff, these resources, these connections, these people, this caring, this love — that took time,” Janosko said. “It takes time to be able to get to a point where you’re able to take care of yourself and also help take care of your community.”
He was frustrated that certain issues — like trash — persisted, despite offers to the city to pay for dumpsters.
“The designated dumping spot is on the street, where everybody can see it,” Janosko said. “So, that looks bad, when the city should have just put out dumpsters, and that would make it look a lot better, and there wouldn’t be all this trash flying around.”
In posting the eviction notices, Caltrans — which owns the bulk of the land the Wood Street settlement occupied — said Wood Street had become too dangerous, with more than 200 fires reported in the span of 2 1/2 years.
Michael Hunt, spokesperson for the Oakland Fire Department, said investigators typically did not look into the causes of these fires, which some residents suspected were arson, because highly flammable siding on RVs and trailers, combined with propane tanks, lighters and other combustible objects, often obscured where fires started or how they spread.
Neighboring residents cited ongoing complaints of crime and blight. Stephen Denlis, CEO of Mean Machine, a nearby fabrication business, said employees’ cars were routinely vandalized, making it hard for him to hire and retain staff.
“It is impossible to hire when you are in the middle of a homeless encampment,” he said, adding that over the past 15 years, his workforce had dwindled from 15 employees to four. “I pay $100 a month for rat abatement, close my doors due to tire fires, and added fencing and screening out front. … The way it is now is scary.”
Denlis watched the community of unhoused people at Wood Street ebb and flow over the years. But around 2019, city workers painted a long white line on the street and set up concrete dividers, separating people’s four-wheeled homes from traffic — an action that, to Larry Coke and other unhoused people living there, seemed to sanction the site.
Coke had been living at Raimondi Park, near 18th and Wood streets, in a tent, and later a trailer, since 2010.
“The city moved us over here right in front of the soccer field,” he recalled. Across from the park was a vacant lot. “We came across the street. And that’s how it started. That’s how people started coming over here.”
In an interview at the time with KPIX, then-Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf defended the city’s actions, saying, “We don’t have a permanent place for that encampment yet, so you will see us use interim measures because we don’t have enough [shelter] beds.”
But Schaaf also made it clear the encampment wasn’t, officially speaking, “sanctioned.”
“From my experience, we have tried it, and it has failed,” Schaaf said of other sanctioned encampments in the city. “All of them have ended in fires, in really dangerous and unhealthy conditions that I believe are not healthy for the unhoused residents, let alone the surrounding community.”
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Given all that, for Janosko and other residents, it was clear the city and Caltrans both had known about the settlement for years. What was the rush to evict everyone now? And besides, where was everyone supposed to go?
He worked with another camp resident, Jaz Colibri, and a nonprofit law group to file for a temporary restraining order in federal court to stop the evictions. The suit argued the five-day notices would cause immediate and irreparable harm.
Janosko hoped to buy his unhoused neighbors some time, and force the city to offer more in the way of solutions than to simply scatter. The strategy worked.
At the first hearing, District Judge William Orrick asked the attorneys for the government agencies involved — Caltrans, the city of Oakland and Alameda County — what kind of shelter was being offered to residents. They all pointed fingers at each other, admitting there was no plan.
“I understand that everybody wants to wash their hands of this particular problem, and that’s not going to happen,” Orrick said, ordering the agencies to come back in a month with answers to where people could go.
But this reprieve was only temporary. Caltrans had been on a tear in the year leading up to the eviction notices at Wood Street, clearing 1,237 encampments in fiscal year 2022, according to William Arnold, spokesperson for the agency. In the months since, Caltrans has ramped up its efforts, clearing 1,534 encampments between July 1, 2022, and April 14, 2023.
But ensuring displaced residents have viable housing options is not part of Caltrans’ mandate.
“Under state law, providing shelter and housing assistance to homeless individuals — including those residing on a state right-of-way within a city’s or county’s boundaries — is the responsibility of local government,” Arnold said.
Caltrans will notify local social services providers and request outreach be done at least two weeks prior to an eviction, he said. And, it posts notices at the site “at least 48 hours in advance.”
For Wood Street residents, this shortage meant that despite a federal court order mandating a plan for housing, the best that Oakland and Alameda County could offer was beds for about half of the soon-to-be-displaced residents. At the next hearing, Orrick said that was adequate. The law was on Caltrans’ side. “There is no constitutional right to housing,” Orrick said.
Janosko was crushed. He knew outsiders saw only the maze of rundown trailers, the makeshift hovels scrapped together with plywood and tarp, the trash. He wished someone with power could also see what he saw: a community.
“People, they look at the wrong things,” he said, turning his face skyward. “Even though it’s a situation that’s maybe not ideal to most people, there’s a lot of things that bring up good emotions inside of you that make you feel good still. It’s not all about being sad and stuff.”
On Sept. 8, 2022, the evictions began. Caltrans crews showed up in force. Dozens of California Highway Patrol officers spread out in a line to separate residents from workers, clearing roughly three-quarters of the settlement. Arnold said the agency ultimately spent $2.1 million removing 800 vehicles and enough debris to fill 200 dumpsters. It spent another $5.5 million installing a concrete barrier and a fence to deter people from reentering.
To Janosko, all that money added up to just one thing: “A whole bunch of people just got all their worldly belongings thrown into a dumpster and grinded away. They got pushed out to another location. They’re scared and alone and by themselves.”
By mid-October, when Caltrans had finished its work at Wood Street, city officials said roughly half the settlement, or 95 people, had accepted offers of shelter.
Of the remaining 110 people, some moved to the Commons. That part of the settlement was spared because it sat on city-owned land — and the city had its own plans for that lot. Others simply spread into the surrounding neighborhood.
“Everyone is just sort of scattered,” Janosko said. “If you go up and down some of these side streets, you’ll notice that there’s a few more RVs parked on just regular residential streets.”
For her part, Huffman moved about a dozen blocks south, to another vacant lot in West Oakland. Many from her compound followed, along with other displaced Wood Street residents. But just as the owner of that lot was gearing up to kick them out, Huffman caught a break. A long-time friend with a house in East Oakland allowed her to move in. It wasn’t close to her job, but it had a yard.
“I got lucky,” she said.
Even though she had left Wood Street, she still returned to the area to visit her friends who remained in trailers nearby. Without them, she said, she never would have made it.
“‘Cause, if I didn’t have something to eat, my neighbor was going to share a sandwich with me. And that was the case every day,” Huffman said. “Nobody can survive without everybody else there. We can’t live without each other, you know?”
Caltrans returned the land where the Wood Street settlement had stood back to bare earth, as empty and open as when Huffman had moved there. Only her brick patio remained.
After getting evicted from her spot under the freeway at Wood Street in September 2022, Ramona Choyce moved three times in three months, ultimately ending up about six blocks south, next door to the Commons.
Guarded by nature, Choyce, 46, has an assertive demeanor that belies her 4-foot-11-inch frame. She works as a scrapper — making money by turning in used metal to be recycled — a trade her father and grandmother practiced before her.
“It’s in the family,” she joked on a recycling run one day, driving her beat-up, sky-blue Isuzu pickup truck from the 1980s. “I guess I need to open up my own business.”
But the move from Caltrans’ land had made it hard for Choyce to keep working. She had taken what she could fit in her trailer or carry in her pickup, but had to leave behind a lot of gear.
“I done lost a lot. A lot,” she said. “I can’t even work on stuff that I need to work on because I really don’t have the tools.”
In her new spot, Choyce was right on the street, exposed to passersby in a way she hadn’t been when she had been tucked under the overpass, “Now, I’m in front, open,” she said.
On several occasions, people broke into Choyce’s trailer. Then, when the rains came in November, water pooled in a sometimes knee-deep moat that was often filled with trash and other debris, despite her constantly raking it clean.
“From the time that I moved over here, it’s been water,” Choyce said. “Caltrans done threw away all my weather gear. … So, I’m getting wet, and it feel like I’m getting sick.”
Her trailer now butted against the fence surrounding Southern Pacific’s abandoned 16th Street train station, not far from where she had grown up as a kid. When she was younger, Choyce sometimes wandered down 16th Street to stare up at the tiled, beaux-arts-style building, with its vaulted ceiling and ornate interior, before the station stopped serving passengers in 1994.
“We used to walk all the way up here,” she said. “But never got on the train.”
At the time, Silicon Valley’s tech industry was rebounding from the dot-com bust and rent prices in the region were rising. West Oakland, which had long experienced disinvestment, suddenly seemed like a promising bet for real estate developers.
Slowly, the march of development moved its way northward, right to the Commons’ doorstep. And evidence of the change in demographics and income was all around West Oakland in the form of new cafes, restaurants — even a doggie hotel.
Sorting aluminum from plastics into blue trash barrels, Choyce eyed a ginger-bearded man as he jogged past her trailer. She shook her head.
“These new people,” she said, emphasizing and repeating “these new people that’s moving in, in our town, want to boot us out.”
She thought about how her mom worked under the table to feed her and her six siblings. Choyce now had six kids of her own, the two youngest of whom were living with their aunt. But despite all the “progress” in West Oakland, it had only become harder for Choyce to survive.
“I’m just imagining it’s going to be even worse for my kids,” she said. “A lot of stuff’s changing.”
Despite her move from under the overpass to the street, she was buoyed by remaining close to the Commons, where she could still access food donations and Operation Dignity’s mobile shower van, and where she was surrounded by people she knew.
When her pickup truck stalled at an intersection one day, her neighbor Smiley helped her fix it. Another day, Patrick Barnes, a volunteer advocate, pulled up with trash cans full of metal that Choyce had collected from her time under the overpass. He had stored it for her during the evictions.
“I feel bad, because I’ve been sitting on it for so long,” he said.
“This is perfect,” she said, “because, right now, I could use it.”
But this stability was only temporary. The Commons — this last vestige of the Wood Street settlement on city-owned land — was facing its own eviction. Officials had long planned to build affordable housing on the lot.
It was one of the last remaining projects of the original 2005 redevelopment agreement, and officials said the developer couldn’t begin work on the planned 170 affordable condos and apartments until the property was cleared.
To do that, Oakland officials applied for and received a little more than $8 million in state grants to relocate residents from the Commons into a new temporary shelter site consisting of 77 “community cabins” — essentially, Tuff Sheds — capable of housing 100 people.
The money was part of a $700 million initiative that Newsom established in 2021, called the Encampment Resolution Funding Program, which has a stated goal of placing people exiting encampments into housing or shelter.
But the program has so far seen mixed results. Only 30% of the roughly 1,500 people removed from encampments through this program transitioned to temporary or permanent housing, said Russ Heimerich, spokesperson for the state’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.
Like many people at the Commons, Choyce was skeptical of the city’s plan. To start, officials hadn’t asked residents before they applied for the grant whether anyone wanted to move into cabins. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most did not.
“I don’t want to go there, either,” Choyce said.
Moving to the cabins meant giving up the one home she had been able to count on in her six years at Wood Street — her trailer — to go into a program where the outcome was uncertain. A 2022 audit of the city’s homelessness services (PDF) found that fewer than one-third of the people who went into the community cabins moved into permanent housing.
Choyce had known people who cycled through the six-month program, only to end up back on the streets.
“If they kick me out, I’ve got my trailer. I’m sheltered,” Choyce said. “I don’t know if they understand that clearly, but it’s important.”
Janosko wanted the city to think long-term.
“Think permanent,” he pleaded with city officials at a community meeting last fall. “So people don’t have to worry [that] if they don’t get housing because they’ve been in mental illness, in drug usage or whatever for the last 10 years and you expect that everything’s gonna be OK? It’s not. There’s too much trauma out here.”
And, he wanted the city to offer something more than what residents were already getting at the Commons.
“We have a clothing closet, we feed people, we house people, we counsel people, we do harm reduction. We already do all this stuff [at the Commons],” he said.
City officials declined multiple requests for an interview and did not respond to questions about why they chose the community cabin model in applying for the state grants, or how they planned to improve outcomes for residents. In a statement, officials said the city “was able to accommodate many of [the residents’] needs and requests, including plumbed bathrooms, a community space, the ability to cook food, workforce opportunities, and a desire to remain together as a community.”
But before the cabins had even been installed, city officials posted eviction notices at the Commons. Choyce and Janosko felt betrayed. Despite the $8 million plan and the community meetings, they were being told to leave before there was a place for them to go.
“What about the people?” Choyce asked. “They don’t care.”
“I just don’t get it,” Janosko said. “We put our hope in other people, the city.”
Again, he and other residents fought back, filing for a temporary restraining order in federal court. And again, the judge sided with residents, ordering the city to delay the evictions until the community cabin site was open.
The delay would prove instrumental, but it would come with costs. It bought residents a few more months of stability, time Janosko used to try to lobby people at the Commons into accepting the city’s offer to move to the new shelter site.
It was a hard sell. Gathered under the pop-up canopy in the outdoor living room Janosko had built, many at the Commons wanted nothing to do with the rules that come with accepting shelter from the city: Residents weren’t allowed keys to their own cabins, could have no visitors. Minor infractions could lead to expulsion.
Janosko painted a different vision, of using the time at the cabins to realize a larger dream: buying a plot of land together, people building their own houses, a garden.
He could almost see it, he said: “That day we walk on our land, that day we break ground. People are coming off the street, and they have a community they can live in for the rest of their lives.”
But, uncertainty was taking its toll. The looming evictions heightened tensions inside the camp. Sober for nine months, Janosko began using crystal methamphetamine again. Arguments between residents became more common.
“There’s just anger,” Janosko said. “Anger and frustration with everything.”
On April 10, the city began evicting residents at the Commons. For nearly two weeks, residents resisted, fencing off the site and locking the gates, dragging bulky items into the street to block public works crews from entering, and sitting on or lying in front of equipment. But, on April 20, police officers showed up in force, arresting two people on conspiracy and theft charges and threatening to arrest anyone else who obstructed city workers.
Faced with bulldozers and handcuffs, most of the residents reluctantly agreed to move to the community cabins or go to a city-run RV parking lot in East Oakland. About a dozen chose to take their chances on the streets.
But Janosko didn’t see the evictions as a complete defeat. Dozens of volunteer advocates had come out to support residents. At the cabins, they’d be together.
He was already thinking of ways to make the new site less sterile, with planter boxes and a grill outside the fences for barbecues. “We’re going to turn it into something more than what it is,” he said.
Over the past four years, the Commons had provided residents enough stability to build a community. If all went according to plan, Janosko hoped the cabins would enable them to keep it.
“Once you get stability,” he said, “then you get everything else that comes along with it.”
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