Residents' possessions are moved aside as Caltrans closes down a homeless encampment and prepares to build a fence. Credit: Pete Rosos

On Thursday afternoon, a small bulldozer crawled across a slab of cement under the I-580 freeway along MacArthur Boulevard that had, for years, been covered by tents housing about 20 people.

“We’ve been here for so long,” said Kisha Bowen, a member of the now-cleared encampment, which residents called “Giraffe Park” thanks to the towering animals painted on freeway beams above them.

The week before, crews from the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, had stopped by to take measurements for a new fence to wall off the area, Bowen said. The state agency owns the land where Giraffe Park stood.

“We asked, ‘What are you doing?’” Bowen recalled. “They said we had to leave by Monday,” meaning September 21.

News that the camp would soon be shut down startled residents and advocates; it was Caltrans’s first camp closure in Oakland in months. In a statement sent to The Oaklandside on Friday, the agency said it has “suspended” camp closures during the coronavirus pandemic, following guidance from national and state health officials to avoid moving unhoused people in order to help contain the disease. 

The camp at Harrison Street and MacArthur was an exception, Caltrans’s statement said, because of “immediate safety and fire concerns.” (Caltrans also cleaned up a West Oakland camp in June, temporarily displacing some people but letting most return.)

When Caltrans began the closure last week, some residents left the area, while others, including Bowen and her uncle Fred, lugged their tents and belongings to a narrow sidewalk that runs parallel to the old camp. The sidewalk, unlike the area beneath the freeway, is owned by the city of Oakland, so the state agency can’t make them move from there. 

It was bright and hot on that sidewalk Thursday afternoon, though the heatwave that was forecasted for the weekend hadn’t begun yet. 

“With my medicine, I can’t be out in the sun like this—I have an infection,” Bowen said. “When I was over there”—meaning Giraffe Park—“there was shade.”

Caltrans refused to answer several questions about the reasons behind the closure and about its current policies around encampments, sending only the short statement referenced above in response to our inquiries. 

But a California Highway Patrol officer parked at the site Thursday said the camp was placed on a list of planned closures before the pandemic, along with camps by freeways in Berkeley. “This is pretty much the first project to happen since then,” said Sgt. Alex Edmon. “Caltrans is a state agency, so it works very slowly.” 

Edmon pointed out that Caltrans didn’t handle the closure of Giraffe Park alone. “This is a joint project with the city—they were aware it was going to happen,” he said.

The city also closed a long-standing encampment by the BART tracks at 85th Avenue and San Leandro Street last week, reported independent journalist Jaime Omar Yassin. The city, which has also said it is suspending camp closures during the pandemic, has not responded to The Oaklandside’s questions about that closure. We will update this story if we hear back. 

CHP’s Edmon said the Giraffe Park campers were given four days to relocate with their belongings, and that everyone complied. But, he said, the agency is installing a fence around the property because people tend to come right back after these sorts of shutdowns. Asked about the impact of closing a camp during a time of widespread housing insecurity, Edmon said that in his experience, most people living in tents don’t want to move to a shelter, or don’t want to comply with the rules at those facilities. 

Standing outside her small tent across the street, Bowen said she’d be thrilled to move somewhere with a roof.

“How are they going to have us move without offering us a place to go?” she said.
“They didn’t give us no hotel vouchers, and all the shelters are closed. You’re taking us out of our element, and putting us in the elements.” 

Bowen said she recently qualified for a waitlist for affordable housing in the San Joaquin Valley. Although she was born at Highland Hospital and would like to stay in her native Oakland, she considers the development a victory, since even getting onto a waitlist in town is a rarity. 

However, Bowen and her uncle said someone from LifeLong Medical Care has been working on connecting them with a more stable situation because of the camp closure, potentially in one of Oakland’s “community cabins,” small sheds the city provides for unhoused people.

While Oakland is attempting to develop a standard policy on closing and servicing homeless encampments, many of its estimated 4,000 unhoused residents live on land owned by the state, and wouldn’t be subject to city rules. 

Caltrans is one of the state’s largest property owners, said Elisa Della-Piana, a lawyer who’s represented homeless people in a case against the agency. “Because of where that property is—under bridges and near overpasses—I think it’s disproportionately likely that that property is going to be a place where homeless people have been pushed to seek shelter. It’s the only land that’s available,” and out of the way of residences and businesses, she said. 

Living in such places can be even more dangerous than sleeping on city sidewalks and in city parks, said Della-Piana, the legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “Caltrans doesn’t have any services. All Caltrans has is crews, trucks, and bulldozers to destroy and take what people have.” Edmon, however, said Caltrans posted a list of resources for unhoused people at the Giraffe Park site, and said advocacy agencies were connecting with displaced residents. 

Bowen, the former Giraffe Park resident, said she didn’t know why Caltrans had “targeted” her camp when so many others were left alone. A local independent reporter, Zack Haber, wrote on Twitter that he was told that housed neighbors called state officials to share their concerns about Giraffe Park. Caltrans would not confirm whether such a call instigated the closure, and Edmon said the agency was simply getting around to an old plan after a pandemic delay.

Hundreds of local homeless people say Caltrans owes them money

Fred, a resident of Giraffe Park, poses at the camp a couple months before it’s shut down. He’s now moved to a nearby sidewalk with his niece. Credit: Pete Rosos

Della-Piana said Caltrans has closed almost no camps in the East Bay since the February settlement of a class-action lawsuit alleging the agency trashed the personal belongings of homeless people in many unannounced encampment sweeps between 2014 and 2019. As part of that settlement, Caltrans has to pay up to $5,500 to anyone who lived in an encampment on its property in Oakland, Berkeley, or Emeryville during that time and can prove the agency unfairly destroyed their belongings. 

The deadline to file a claim is Oct. 16. Lawyers, advocates, and around 80 volunteers have been visiting encampments in recent weeks, calling people up, and answering a free phone hotline (510-467-0105) to walk people through the tedious process. Della-Piana said more than 100 claims have been filed, and hundreds more are in the works. The attorneys are now seeking a deadline extension. If that request is granted, people who are owed money should start getting their checks around December, Della-Piana said.

“Of the people it’s possible to reach, we’ve reached most of them at this point,” she said, noting that many people who might be eligible have moved away or died. 

“Many people lost things that were important to their families, like the only photo they had of their mom, or contact info for relatives, “ Della-Piana added. “Just the things we use to remember people close to us—of course you’re going to have that with you, if you don’t have anywhere to put it.”

These days, if Caltrans posts anything at a camp, it’s required to include information about the lawsuit settlement, Della-Piana said. In the settlement, Caltrans also agreed to several new protocols for closing camps, like the advance notice it gave the Giraffe Park residents. 

Della-Piana said lawyers are looking into whether Caltrans violated new rules on storing residents’ personal possessions during the Giraffe Park closure. The agency did not answer The Oaklandside’s questions about what it did with belongings left at the site. Edmon, the CHP officer, said residents took what they wanted to keep.

Bowen, the former Giraffe Park resident, said she moved most, but not all, of her belongings to the sidewalk where she lives now. She’s decided not to dwell on what she left behind.

“The material things are not a big problem,” she said. “The problem is you’re not trying to help us find a place to go.” 

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.