Oakland police towed several vehicles parked by a homeless camp near the Fruitvale Home Depot on Thursday, as part of a cleanup and closure operation. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

A portion of Alameda Avenue was cordoned off Thursday morning, as trucks towed vehicles and police stood guard—part of a multi-day deep-cleaning and homeless camp closure operation in Fruitvale.

Set to conclude Thursday, the operation includes the closure of a small camp where people were living, the removal of 80 abandoned vehicles, and the clean-up of illegally dumped trash, according to the city. 

The effort signals the implementation of the controversial “encampment management” policy approved by the City Council in the fall, which bans homeless people from living outside in many parts of Oakland, and spells out how and when the city can come in and provide sanitation services, clean a camp, or shut it down. 

Karen Boyd, a city spokesperson, said Thursday’s actions, around Alameda Avenue and E. 8th Street, as well as by the Fruitvale Bridge, were taking place “in accordance with” the new policy.

As part of the operation, residents of a homeless camp comprised of three vehicles and one tent were ordered to leave an area deemed “high-sensitivity,” making it an illegal spot for camping, Boyd said. She added that the people living there were allowed to relocate just outside of that area, and they’d been offered housing—a requirement of the policy—but didn’t specify what type of housing. 

Dozens of abandoned cars and RVs have been impacting the roads and obstructing travel in the area, Boyd said. Notices placed on the vehicles earlier this week said the owners were violating a city policy that bans anyone from parking in one spot for more than 72 hours.

On Thursday, Gilberto Gonzalez stood just outside the yellow caution tape stretched along Oakport Street, watching in distress as a tow truck loaded his silver minivan onto its platform. Gonzalez lives in a trailer on High Street, at the city’s “safe RV parking” site parallel to the Alameda Avenue area where his van was parked.

While some people scrambled to move their cars earlier this week, Gonzalez said he’d been in the hospital and came back last night to find his van tagged for removal. On Thursday morning, he held a collection of documents in his hands, including a city-issued parking permit which he thought was keeping him in the clear, but it appeared to have expired in January.

“I’m going to lose my van,” he said. “What kind of help is this? We’re homeless.”

Gonzalez is active in the Fruitvale neighborhood around his trailer, often joining City Councilmember Noel Gallo’s weekend community clean-ups. He was carrying with him a letter of recommendation from Gallo, praising Gonzalez for his “ability and effort in trying to make our community of Fruitvale a better place to live and getting himself out of homelessness.”

Gilberto Gonzalez, who lives in a nearby trailer, was distressed to see his minivan towed Thursday. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Many advocates for unhoused people in Oakland were disturbed to learn about this week’s camp closure in Fruitvale because they believed that the city was not yet enforcing the Encampment Management Policy. 

The policy requires the city to offer alternative shelter to residents before closing their camps, as mandated by the court decision Martin v. Boise. In that case, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that governments, including cities, can’t punish homeless people for sleeping outside, for example by banning camping and closing their camps, when housing or shelter isn’t available. The City Council has discussed what type of shelter must be offered to those residents, and for how many days, but hasn’t made an official decision, and many opponents of the policy believed this meant it was not yet being carried out. 

“Should [Thursday’s] evictions proceed as announced, they will constitute a serious violation of recent Council actions, as well as a betrayal of trust with both homeless advocates and the unhoused community,” wrote the Homeless Advocacy Working Group in a letter to the city this week.

Boyd told The Oaklandside that the city is “conducting these intervention activities with dignity, respect, and collaboration with the residents, business, and advocates.”

The encampment management policy supersedes a previous suspension of camp closures by the city for COVID-safety reasons. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended local governments leave encampments in their place, unless residents are provided with housing, to slow the spread of the virus.

The Fruitvale operation follows a larger, recent camp closure at nearby Union Point Park, which took place over many months in response to orders by the state Bay Conservation and Development Commission for the city to shut down the camp. Some of the residents accepted offers by the city to move into transitional housing facilities or hotels. According to city staff, 16 of the residents are now working closely with Oakland to establish a “co-governed encampment,” where residents and an outside agency will design and run a sanctioned camp together in another location. 

That outcome is the result of months of tension and negotiation between the unhoused people, police, marina residents and staff, businesses, and city staffers, including former Homelessness Administrator Daryel Dunston, who left his job abruptly at the beginning of March. Dunston, an architect of the Encampment Management Policy, had been working with Union Point Park residents to establish a co-governed camp.

The Fruitvale closure and cleaning is the first time the policy has been implemented under the leadership of Dunston’s interim replacement administrator, LaTonda Simmons.

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.