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'I Fight for My Community': How 1 Woman Found Courage, Pride and Meaning at Wood Street Settlement

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Close-up of an African American woman looking out and away from the camera as her arms rest on something and an open blurred area behind.
Jessica Fountaine looks into an empty lot beside her RV at the end of 9th and Pine streets in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Born in Oakland, Jessica Katrice Fountaine and her family moved around the Bay, first to Hayward, then Vallejo. But she still spent much of her time in The Town. “I don’t remember a weekend where I was not out here. I was always here,” she said.

When she moved to the Wood Street encampment last year at the age of 33, she said she felt like she had come home.

This area of the Wood Street community stretched along a long-vacant plot of land in West Oakland under a maze of freeway overpasses, a wastewater treatment plant and freight-train tracks on one side, and a line of warehouses and businesses on the other. Fountaine said she became familiar with this area as a kid. One day, her brothers made a game of jumping off a railroad bridge onto a mattress on the dirt below.

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“The first bone I broke was off this bridge,” she said, recalling how, as she jumped, her brothers pulled the mattress out from under her. “It made me tough, though.”

Fountaine said she had lived with her family for much of her life but, after a falling out, set out on her own, first living in her truck, then in an RV community in Richmond, before arriving at Wood Street in June 2022. The settlement provided a safety net, she said, a community where people looked out for each other.

At the time, it was Northern California’s largest settlement of unhoused people. But in September, just months after Fountaine arrived at Wood Street, a serious fire near her trailer prompted Caltrans, the agency that owns the land, to order all of the roughly 300 residents to pack up and leave within five days.

After the eviction, many residents scattered to areas around Wood Street, including the neighboring city-owned land, which they dubbed the Commons. But people staying there were soon forced to leave as well, and by April, the city had cleared the last remaining residents, with Oakland officials saying the site would be used to develop 170 units of affordable housing. Hundreds of people continue to live in the area without permanent housing.

This story follows Jessica Katrice Fountaine from July 2022 through May 2023.

An RV parked beneath a freeway ramp.
The sun sets on the Wood Street settlement seen from an abandoned railroad bridge in West Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
An African American woman with a black shirt and a denim jacket fixes the baseball hat on her head inside her RV as she laughs.
Jessica Fountaine laughs with a friend in her RV at Wood Street. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When Fountaine arrived at Wood Street, a friend let her live in an empty trailer at his compound. Although residents see themselves as one community, most people separate into smaller groups — or compounds — for both camaraderie and protection. “I’m the compound cook,” Fountaine said.

An African American woman applies eye makeup in a mirror.
Fountaine practices putting makeup on herself in her RV at Wood Street. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Before the pandemic, Fountaine worked as an in-home caregiver to her two godchildren. After losing her job when the lockdown started, she said she took time to think about what she wanted to do to make money. “I don’t want to live to work. And I don’t want to work to live,” she said. “I want to be able to enjoy some part of it and try to make a change just a little bit.”

A written note in red ink on lined notebook paper lays on the ground.
A sign notifying people not to disturb Fountaine’s virtual church fell to the ground after being taped to her RV door at Wood Street. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Fountaine grew up attending Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in West Oakland, where she was baptized and went to her first praise dance, and religion continues to play a large role in her life. She recalled a time before moving to Wood Street that brought her closer to her church: “I walked around for days with nowhere to go. I couldn’t sleep because it’s not safe. It just took one person to offer for me to live in her trailer that she wasn’t living in, and I cried for three days. I slept, and I cried. And then I just got up. It was a Sunday, and I got on my phone, and I went to church because my church goes live on Facebook … I’ve never been more deep and more strong in my religion than I am now.”

An African American woman leaves her RV as she prepares to exit the open door and down the stairs.
Jessica Fountaine leaves her RV to visit a neighbor. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Wood Street life could be tough. Residents often used generators or solar power for electricity, and there was no running water. That scarcity heightened Fountaine’s awareness of the resources she uses.

“I come from a very traditional background, so it’s weird for my family to see or to accept how I live, but I’ve never been more aware of my carbon footprint in my life,” she said. “I went home for Christmas, and I sat back, and I watched how they just let the water run washing dishes. I don’t have that luxury no more. How I used to let the shower run to get hot. I don’t have that luxury no more … I don’t let food go to waste. I preserve my lights. My everything has changed with me living like this.”

Manicured and stylized long fingernails in a photo of an African American woman's right hand with a denim jacket sleeve.
Fountaine shows off the nails she did for herself in her RV at Wood Street. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Nevertheless, Fountaine said, she still considers herself “a girly girl.” “I like nails. I like makeup. So I made the choice to go to cosmetology school,” she said. Fountaine said she has already picked a name for the salon she hopes to one day own: Rosalind’s Beauty Bar, an homage to her mother. Despite their strained relationship, she said, she still cares deeply about her mom. “And all I do is pray about it. I just pray that, before God calls either one of us home, he fix whatever is broken.”

Two African American women, one seated in the drivers seat of a car and the other standing outside her car door, holding a box.
Fountaine talks with her friend Shavon who had recently been in a car accident near Wood Street. As soon as Fountaine heard about it, she and another friend jumped into action to tow the car back to the settlement. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
A car being towed ahead seen from inside another car driving behind it as they pass under an overpass.
Fountaine drives behind as her friend Shavon’s car is towed into the settlement to be repaired. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
An African American woman wearing a blue denim jacket smoking while seated inside an RV.
Jessica Fountaine smokes a vape pen in her RV. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
An African American woman dancing with a dog as dust is kicked up, with industrial structures behind them, and she's wearing a pink sleeveless shirt.
At Wood Street, Fountaine dances with Bonita, a neighbor’s dog, in front of an abandoned railroad bridge. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Although people formed into small compounds, Fountaine said Wood Street residents also saw themselves as one community and built up shared resources. “We still all come together. We have a community center called the Cob. It’s all the way in the middle … It’s pretty nice,” she said, as the eviction loomed closer. “During what’s going on now, we’ve been having a lot of family dinners and stuff. You will find more help here than you will from a government facility. Clothes, food, shelter from the weather, mental health, hygiene.”

An African American woman looks out pensively from the passenger seat of a car.
Fountaine sits in a friend’s car at Wood Street Fountaine after losing the RV where she was living. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But things weren’t always harmonious. A dispute within her compound at the beginning of September cost her the trailer where she was living: Its owner took it back without warning, along with all her belongings. Although she didn’t know where she would live at the time, she expressed confidence in her friends and herself. “My family … They did not raise a quitter. And they didn’t raise me to just sit and wallow in my self-pity. So I’m figuring it out one day at a time.”

When Caltrans began evicting residents just days later, she remained optimistic. “Well, I’ll be OK. I just got to make sure that my family’s OK because that’s what they don’t understand. We are not friends. We are not associates. This is our family. We depend on one another. We help one another, and when we sick, we help each other get well. That’s us.”

RVs in an encampment under a freeway ramp with signs that say 'Where do we go?' draped on the nearest RV.
Signs cover 2 RVs at the Wood Street encampment as Caltrans moved in to clear the area. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As the evictions continued over several weeks, Fountaine reflected on the resilience of her community. “We didn’t [just] survive. We were living. We lived here. We can do it anywhere. So just shutting us down and pushing us out does nothing but make the city have to really figure it out because where are we gonna go? We’re just going to find another empty lot, and we’re gonna do this all over. So find a permanent solution,” Fountaine said.

An African American woman sweeps a dirt path with a broom with cars and RVs parked behind her.
​​Jessica Fountaine uses a broom to sweep around her new RV parked at the end of 9th and Pine streets, near the Lower Bobs Skatepark. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After being evicted from Wood Street, Fountaine found another RV to live in and relocated about a mile away to 9th and Pine streets in October, where a growing number of displaced residents had relocated.

A white man leans on the open door of an SUV with window rolled down, talking with an African American woman seated in the drivers seat.
Fountaine talks with her neighbor, Bradford Nicholson, on 9th and Pine streets. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At the new site, Fountaine helped arrange toilets, a sink and a regular trash pick-up at the end of the street. “I fight for my community to be better because I want my family to come over here,” she said.

An African American looking out of her RV door, smiling, seen from the left.
Fountaine talks to her cousins from the doorway of the RV where she lives at 9th and Pine streets. A sign about faith and trust in God she made hangs on the wall. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
An African American woman lying in bed with her cat
Jessica Fountaine lies in bed with her cat BW in the bedroom of her RV on 9th and Pine Streets. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In December, as the holidays approached, Fountaine said she had been thinking a lot about her relationship with her mother after her difficult teen and young-adult years. “Our relationship is so torn apart. All I can do is be the best daughter that I can be right now. I want her to see me for who I am now and not who I was 10 years ago. Like she doesn’t understand how important a hug means to me right now … I miss her so much,” she said.

A notebook open on a lap.
While lying in her bed in the RV at 9th and Pine streets, Fountaine reads through responses she wrote to prompts in a life-story journal. For her greatest achievement, she wrote, ‘Living on my own.’ (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I was taught that being book smart is one thing, but you still need to know how to be street smart. And it comes in handy,” she said.

An African American man smiles as he looks through an RV window.
Fountaine’s cousin, Earnest Jasper, talks to her through the window of her RV at 9th and Pine streets. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
An African American woman cooking food on a BBQ, wearing a broadbrimmed hat.
Fountaine cooks on a stove she created in the bed of a pickup truck on 9th and Pine streets. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Fountaine is often the cook for her community but said they also look out for her. “We all depend on each other. I’m diabetic,” she said. “My neighbors come over there and be like, ‘You eat today?’” But living alone, often without a cellphone, also worries her.

An RV kitchen with food on the counter.
Food sits in Fountaine’s kitchen as smoke wafts through the air. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Fountaine said she has considered moving into safe RV parking, a space for RV residents that offers electrical hookups, bathrooms and other amenities, but the rumors of limited-term stays or RV park closures have dissuaded her. That’s what these are for, to house those who are unhoused,” she said. “So you’re going to house us, then unhouse us?”

An African American woman sits on a chair outside by the road, closing her eyes as she smokes a cigarette, wearing a black outfit.
Jessica Fountaine sits on an abandoned chair left on the road outside her RV. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

With the 9th and Pine streets area scheduled to be cleared by the city of Oakland on May 17, 2023, Fountaine said she’s considering moving to a city-run shelter, consisting of “community cabins” — essentially, Tuff Sheds — where other former Wood Street residents have gone. But she said that would only be a temporary solution to a long-term problem.

“How I live is not who I am. And unfortunately, I’m sorry. I can’t afford that $1,500, that $1,200 rent,” she said, adding that lower-cost housing is the only solution she can see.

“If we can’t afford it, we gonna be right back where we started. That’s what I feel like nobody understands.”

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