An empty historic building burned Friday morning, capping off a week of unease at a large East Oakland homeless encampment. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

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All week long, homeless people who live in Union Point Park, on the waterfront near Jingletown, were concerned that their camp was going to be closed by the city. Activists stood on watch at the park most days, ready to defend the residents if police came to force them out. Then on Friday morning around 9:20 a.m., a fire broke out in a historic building next to the tents, destroying several people’s belongings and further putting the future of this camp, one of Oakland’s largest, in question.

A couple hours later, Anthony Pestana stood watching what was left of his tent and belongings as smoke spewed from the old Cryer building at Coast Guard Island Bridge and Embarcadero. Pestana had been sleeping in the tent in front of the building when someone woke him up, warning him there was a fire. He escaped with others but didn’t have time to grab any of his things, including his phone.

“I only had essentials, but it’s stuff you need,” said Pestana, who has lived in the park for about five years. 

Oakland Fire Department Lt. Charleton Lightfoot said OFD is investigating the cause of the blaze. Because the building was vacant and had already been “red-tagged” for structural dangers, and because no one was trapped or injured, firefighters did not risk their safety by entering it, fighting the flames from outside instead. An hour after it caught fire, most of the wooden building was in shambles.

Watching the devastation with Pestana was the group of activists who’ve been posted at the park most days this week, carrying wood shields and cameras to resist any attempt by the city to make residents move. A week ago, the city posted notices saying its workers would carry out a closure of some campsites in the park this Thursday and Friday.

The city has to close the camp because the state’s San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, BCDC, issued a cease and desist order saying Oakland is violating state and city policy by allowing tents in the park. The BCDC has jurisdiction over Oakland’s entire waterfront area. The commission’s order requires Oakland to close all campsites in Union Point Park except for those in a designated area by Sunday. The permitted camp—where Pestana and many others live—must be closed by Feb. 12. 

Resident Matt Long, right, talks with Oakland’s homelessness administrator Daryel Dunston, at the encampment Thursday. Credit: Pete Rosos

About five people had to leave during this week’s partial closure. They were offered spots at transitional housing sites, said city spokesperson Karen Boyd, in an email. She did not say whether the offers were accepted.

But some residents and activists were unsure which areas inside the park were slated for closure this week and which areas people could continue to camp in until February. Others feared the city would end up shutting down everything in one go.

Daryel Dunston, the city’s homelessness administrator, showed up at the park Thursday, trying to reassure residents and activists that nobody in the main camp was going to be evicted anytime soon. He reminded residents that city workers had been coming to connect people with shelter for the past month.

“Outreach efforts to provide those individuals remaining in the north end of the park with resources, service, and alternative shelter that meet their specified needs have been ongoing and will continue through the closure in February,” Boyd said. 

But the city’s efforts to connect people with resources and temporary shelter are cold comfort for many encampment residents and activists who said the site shouldn’t be closed at all. They see the closure as a precursor to many more closures that could come under the city’s new Encampment Management Policy. The EMP prohibits camps in most areas of Oakland, including parks. 

“In the coming months there’s going to be a lot more sweeps,” said Dale Smith, an activist with The United Front Against Displacement, which organized around 20 people to come protest at Union Point Park. It’s the worst possible time to make unhoused people pack up, Smith said: “The EMP, the pandemic, the economy tanking—all of these are reasons why folks out on the streets are in more danger.”

“Out here it’s a community,” said Tina Harris, who’s moving into transitional housing with her family next month. Credit: Pete Rosos

Pestana said he doesn’t enjoy living in the encampment, but “I got nowhere to go.”

“A lot of people feel safer here than going out to other parts of the street,” said another resident, Laroy, earlier this week. He said people are too quick to judge and look down on his community.

Pestana said he’d be hesitant to accept a shelter offer from the city, noting that he’d rather move into a permanent home.

Matt Long, another resident, said the city offered him a spot at one of the “community cabins” on Oak Street. He declined, however, because of the rules residents there are subjected to. “I’m an American,” he said. “Nobody’s going to tell me who I can have come over. If we were able to get some sort of assistance, we could live our own way.”

Others, like year-long encampment resident Tina Harris, have welcomed the offer of an indoor place to sleep this winter. Her family is currently staying at a hotel before they can move into a new supportive housing facility in Rockridge.

The city actually disagreed with the Bay Conservation Development District about closing the camp during the COVID-19 crisis. Oakland had already begun to close the camp in early 2020, after receiving violation notices from the state, but then tried to postpone until after the pandemic, according to a report written by BCDC staff. The commission initially agreed to wait, but “after hearing from residents of the adjacent marina,” who complained about health and safety issues related to the camp, BCDC decided to give Oakland hard deadlines for closing it before the crisis ends.

The many people living in the northern area of Union Point Park will have to leave by February. Credit: Pete Rosos

BCDC documented numerous complaints about violent incidents, car break-ins, vandalism, and other issues at the park, starting in 2018. Oakland has conducted multiple camp closures and cleanings over the past few years, sometimes under pressure from the state.

Activists say they want to pressure Oakland to resist the current order to close the camp. Boyd said the city has not tried to appeal the decision. 

Camp residents and activists accuse the state and city of allowing marina residents to set the timeline for closure. They describe a hostile relationship with Harbormaster Brock de Lappe, who’s been an outspoken critic of the encampment. 

“Any honest person would readily acknowledge that these homeless encampments have brought additional crime into the neighborhood,” de Lappe emailed BCDC in August. He wrote that multiple recent shootings, including homicides, were connected to the camp. “It is also not clear to me why the City of Oakland is so impotent in dealing with this issue. The people of the city of Oakland have been deprived of access to this potentially beautiful shoreline park for years.”

Even if the state hadn’t forced Oakland to take immediate action, the city may have ultimately closed the waterfront camp. Describing the encampment management policy at a city meeting in September, Dunston said the goal is to find “a way we can work with folks to manage these camps.” But “if those efforts are futile,” and residents resist offers to move into shelters, the city might shut them down. “Union Point Park is a perfect example where we’d look to the City Council for guidance,” he said. “We’ve had three homicides there and conducted outreach several times.”

Boyd said the fire won’t impact the city’s timeline or plans for the full closure of the camp, still slated for February.

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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 grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.