Caltrans employees forklift the remains of a car from underneath a highway overpass during the first day of a week-long site clean-up. Credit: Pete Rosos

The California Department of Transportation ordered residents of one of Oakland’s largest homeless encampments to pack up and leave for a weeklong clean-up that began today. The agency cited fire safety issues associated with the camp’s location, but the decision raised health concerns for the West Oakland campers. 

Camp residents and activists told The Oaklandside they’re concerned that moving unsheltered people around during the pandemic could expose them to greater risk of infection from the coronavirus. 

Early Tuesday morning, Caltrans began the clear-out, towing mostly abandoned vehicles from a small part of the camp that stretches along Wood Street and I-880 Frontage Road, roughly between 17th and 26th streets. The agency said it will work its way up the rest of its portion of that land this week. 

Residents of the Wood Street camp—a mini-village of vehicles, RVs, a few tents, and shacks— say there are about 100 people living there on property that’s split between Caltrans and the city. For many, it’s not the first time they’ve been told to leave the area. Some residents say they arrived at the blocks-long camp after the city of Oakland conducted sweeps at the neighboring Raimondi Park and at a privately owned lot between 24th and 26th streets last October.

Last Thursday, Caltrans posted a final “notice to vacate illegal campsite,” telling campers to head out by 7 a.m., this Tuesday through Friday, for clean-ups scheduled throughout the week. Fliers posted at the encampment said any personal belongings left behind on those days would be considered abandoned, but that “personal property not disposed of” by Caltrans would be held for pick-up for 90 days. The number to reclaim missing property is 510-601-1070.

Before 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Wood Street was crowded with Caltrans trucks, along with California Highway Patrol, Oakland Police Department, and Oakland Department of Public Works vehicles. CHP Officer M. Richardson said the agency would be cleaning up trash and towing only clearly abandoned vehicles. “We haven’t taken anybody’s homes,” he said. Richardson said residents could sleep at the encampment Tuesday night if they wanted to.

However, notices posted Thursday warn that the encampment is “illegal,” and say residents will be cited or arrested for “continued violations” for failing to remove their property from the area by 7 a.m. each morning this week.  

Rich lives on Caltrans property and runs a repair shop for anything mechanical. He said he’d abandon his camp if Caltrans kicked everyone out for good. Credit: Pete Rosos

The crews that came out Tuesday morning focused mostly on trash. Caltrans towed vehicles out from under the I-880 overpass, onto Wood Street. Most of the cars were covered in graffiti and looked like they’d previously been scrapped for parts or crushed. An Oakland police officer who was tagging the vehicles said they’d been identified as stolen and would later be taken away.

But a woman who’d come to the area to check on her close friend was distressed, she said, because one of the vans that had been towed out to the street belonged to her friend, a Wood Street camp resident.

“Hopefully they’re just putting it on the street and not towing it,” said Debbie, who didn’t share her last name. Debbie said her friend leaves the camp every morning to collect food from food pantries and find a shower, and she didn’t want him to come back to find the van, which she’d given him, missing. 

“He’s a real respectable guy,” she said. “They should be acting out of love right now. You can’t even go to work right now or pay for nothing. And he’s disabled.”

Activists from the group United Front Against Displacement (UFAD)—which formed a couple years ago to support the Wood Street camp—also came to the site Tuesday morning. They took out their phones to film the operation and spoke with residents. Some passed out gloves, hand sanitizer, and snacks. The activists are concerned that the clear-out will lead to an all-out eviction of the residents of the encampment.

Caltrans said its goal is to remove debris and clear the way for fire access. In an email to The Oaklandside, Caltrans said the Oakland Fire Department had asked the agency to clean out the encampment area underneath I-880.

“There have been several fires set by individuals in and near the area,” wrote spokesperson Janis Mara. “If a fire should break out, as has happened before, this could endanger the people experiencing homelessness, and the overpass.” 

People living in RVs will be relocated to an area to the north of the camp, said Mara, though she didn’t specify where. People living in the camp who spoke to The Oaklandside said they’d been told by officials they could go to the intersection of West Grand Avenue and Wood Street. But some said this was another area they previously had been ordered to leave.

Campers and advocates said they believe making residents leave with their belongings during the pandemic poses a health risk. 

“Their solution to a safety issue is to create a new safety issue,” said Dayton Andrews of United Front Against Displacement. “They’re asking people to move into a further cramped environment in the time of coronavirus.”

A group of people stand in a circle outside, with the freeway in the background
Dale Smith (back, in blue hat), with the United Front Against Displacement, instructs activists on where to go to observe and document the Caltrans clean-up operation. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

During a Monday evening town hall on encampment policy hosted by District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor, Oakland city staffers said that encampment closures have been suspended since the shelter-in-place order. Both city policy and federal law requires the city to offer residents alternative shelter or housing before dismantling a camp, staff said. Shelter beds have been at capacity throughout the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We don’t want to take any actions that may put anybody at an extreme risk,” said Daryel Dunston, Oakland’s homelessness administrator. “We ought to bring services to them rather than be displacing them.” 

The city and county have expanded shelter options during the crisis too.

The county has leased three hotels for homeless people through the state’s Project Roomkey. The Radisson, which serves medically vulnerable people who do not have the virus, is completely full, Dunston said. The Comfort Inn and Quality Inn are not, but those rooms are only open to people who’ve tested positive for, or been exposed to, the coronavirus. Oakland has also set up dozens of trailers from the state near The Coliseum to house homeless people during the pandemic through a program called Operation Homebase. But those sites can’t support all of the estimated 3,210 unsheltered homeless people in Oakland.

In early 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom released a map of “excess” state land that cities could lease for $1 if they used the sites for homelessness solutions. The I-880 underpass area was not on that list, but some small parcels of land further south, near the West Oakland Post Office, were.

City policy doesn’t apply on state land, however, and part of the Wood Street camp area is owned by the state through Caltrans.

Caltrans’ practices when closing and cleaning homeless camps have been the subject of controversy and lawsuits in the past. In February, Caltrans reached a $5.5 million settlement deal in a class-action lawsuit alleging the agency had unconstitutionally destroyed homeless people’s belongings in encampment sweeps throughout the East Bay. The agreement requires Caltrans to give notice before closing camps and to store campers’ property for 60 days. The agency says it will keep the Wood Street belongings for 90 days.

Asked whether Wood Street campers had been offered shelter, Caltrans spokesperson Mara said, “Caltrans, the County of Alameda, and the City of Oakland are working with non-profit organizations to provide services for any individuals who are currently homeless and living in this area.”

During Monday’s town hall, Oakland staff said the city has doubled the number of toilets and handwashing stations at encampments during the pandemic, and increased the frequency of servicing them. 

“The outreach team has been out on the streets, giving PPE and doing general assessments,” said Lara Tannenbaum, human services manager.

Some Wood Street residents and advocates said they hadn’t received increased sanitation services during the pandemic. They said they’d welcome more garbage collection, too. On Tuesday morning, seagulls and pigeons picked at piles of trash lining Wood Street.

Over the weekend, members of the United Front Against Displacement had come to build a shower for residents.

Even though activists are protesting the Caltrans operation, some campers said Monday that they felt they couldn’t risk sticking around and would relocate. Andrews said UFAD would help residents move their belongings off the Caltrans land. 

Kellie Castillo, who’s lived at the site in her van for four months, said she was resigned to packing up and moving if Caltrans came around to kick her out.

“If you stand your ground, you will lose everything,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.