Wood Street is Oakland’s largest unhoused community, encompassing state, city, private, and railroad land. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Update, July 19, 1:15 p.m.: A federal judge has granted Wood Street residents a temporary restraining order prohibiting the planned closure of their camp this week.

The state, county, and city are barred “from proceeding with planned removal of persons, personal possessions, and structures from the Wood Street encampment; closing the Wood Street encampment; or otherwise removing homeless individuals from the Wood Street encampment,” under the order from U.S. district court Judge William H. Orrick in San Francisco.

Orrick will determine whether to maintain the restraining order at a hearing Friday morning. In their request for the temporary order, residents of the camp argued that the closure plan puts them in physical danger and may violate a law requiring Caltrans to offer them shelter.

Original story, July 18: The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, has announced it will close large portions of the Wood Street homeless encampment—Oakland’s biggest unhoused community, stretching across numerous blocks and under freeways in West Oakland—by Aug. 1. 

The agency said it chose to accelerate a previous long-term closure plan for the camp after a massive fire there on July 11 destroyed numerous shelters, vehicles, and infrastructure, and shut down the MacArthur Maze freeway interchange.

In a Friday press release, Caltrans said it would close the “entire” Wood Street camp, which caused some confusion, as the camp also covers city, private, and railroad land, where the state doesn’t have authority. The agency clarified to The Oaklandside on Monday that it will only shut down encampments on state property.

Some Wood Street residents are reeling from the announcement, which was posted on notices around the property Friday.

“A lot of us are devastated—there’s people who’ve been here for years,” said Sasha Huckaby, who lives in a tiny-house section of the camp called Cob on Wood. “It’s one of the hardest, scariest things, knowing we’re going to lose this community we’ve built.”

Huckaby called the camp her “safe haven,” saying residents have each other’s backs. She compared the looming closure to her experience growing up in the foster care system, where she’d become comfortable in a home only to abruptly learn she’d have to leave it.

The Cob on Wood village of cob structures was built by residents and a nonprofit. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

In its press release, Caltrans said it’s “coordinating with the city of Oakland and Alameda County so that the nearly 200 people estimated to be living at the site have access to shelter beds offered and provided by the local partners.”

The city didn’t respond to questions by publication time about which shelters or housing facilities would be offered to residents, and how many spots would be made available. 

The Caltrans release references city plans to open a new, 100-bed “community cabin” shelter on Wood Street, using a $4.7 million state grant for “encampment resolution.” However, that program won’t be open by Aug. 1. Many of the Wood Street residents live in RVs, but the city’s “safe parking” sites are currently full.

Andrea Henson, a lawyer and advocate who’s represented Wood Street residents, said the effect of the closure will be “catastrophic” for the hundreds of people living there. 

She said many residents are not connected with social services or benefits, often a precursor to qualifying for permanent housing. Many have disabilities, she noted, that make it challenging for them to seek out assistance.

“They’ve had all this time, the city and Caltrans,” Henson said. “Get out there and do a census of all the residents: Are they getting food stamps, social security? What’s your name, are you on benefits, do you have mental health services? There’s no way, if they’re going to evict everyone by Aug. 1, that this will be done.”

Fire crews doused flames at a July 11 fire on Wood Street. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Prior to this decision, Caltrans had been conducting a multi-phase, months-long cleaning and clearing of its portion of the camp. 

Numerous previous fires had already caused safety concerns, including one in April that killed a man who became trapped in an RV. The Oakland Fire Department has noted the difficulty of extinguishing blazes at the site because there’s no fire hydrant.

After last week’s fire, Caltrans sent a structural engineer to the site to assess damage to the freeway infrastructure. The agency did not respond to a question by publication time about the outcome of that assessment. 

The city of Oakland also conducted a closure operation on the blocks of Wood Street between West Grand Avenue and 26th Street over the course of last week. 

During that city closure, witnesses report, Oakland police tased and arrested a resident of the camp. The Oaklandside reviewed photographs that matched the reports. 

An Oakland Police Department spokesperson said the man was arrested on suspicion of harming a city employee and throwing something at a city vehicle. 

“Officers were on scene assisting Oakland Public Works with an intervention/closure at the encampment,” said Officer Kim Armstead, in an emailed statement. “At this time, officers were advised of an individual who harmed a Public Works employee. Officers located the individual and attempted to detain him, however, the individual did not comply with the officer’s commands. A use of force occurred, and the individual was taken into custody.” 

Amstead said the department is investigating the officer’s use of force.

Huckaby said that while she’s helping some of her neighbors find places to go, she’s among a group that plans to “stand guard and refuse to leave” when Caltrans arrives later this week. 

Talya Husbands-Hankin, an advocate with the organization Love & Justice in the Streets, said she’s concerned about the impact of closing the camp during a COVID-19 surge. She knows of Wood Street residents who are currently sick, and said they won’t want to relocate to quarantine hotels if they know their homes are going to be cleared while they’re away.

“I’m concerned this is going to create a public health disaster,” 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.