Judge William H. Orrick chastised Caltrans, the city, and he county for failing to come up with a plan for Wood Street residents so far. Credit: Amir Aziz

Caltrans cannot close the massive Wood Street homeless encampment in West Oakland until the state agency works with the city and county to come up with a plan to provide shelter to the people living there, a federal judge ruled Friday morning. 

“I understand everybody wants to wash their hands of this particular problem, and that’s not going to happen,” Judge WIlliam H. Orrick told representatives for the government agencies at a hearing held over Zoom. 

Orrick maintained a temporary restraining order he had awarded to Wood Street residents earlier in the week, prohibiting Caltrans from moving forward with a closure the state agency had planned to start this week. Last Friday, Caltrans had announced plans to shut down the camp by Aug. 1, citing safety hazards brought to light after a fire tore through the site several days prior.

The Wood Street encampment is the largest in Oakland, and it spans public and private land, including large swaths under the freeway owned by Caltrans, as well as city and railroad property. Caltrans estimates 200 people are living on the land owned by the state transportation agency, and many have been there for several years.

Three of those residents spoke at the hearing, including one who called in from a hospital bed where he is being treated for a bacterial infection.

“If the evictions go through, all my stuff is gone,” said John Janosko. “I have a trailer with a dog and cat. I’m hoping there’s more time to figure out a solution, versus just throwing [residents] and dispersing them into the surrounding neighborhood.” 

At the hearing, lawyers for Caltrans stressed the urgency of addressing the fire risk at the site, noting that this month’s blaze had come dangerously close to an East Bay Municipal Utility District facility with oxygen tanks, and had shut down the MacArthur Maze freeway interchange for four hours. 

In April, a man who got trapped in his RV died in another fire at the camp.

“This is simply a potential catastrophe that cannot be tolerated,” said Caltrans attorney Stephen Silver.

Orrick said he agreed that the area should be vacated promptly, but chastised the local and state government agencies for failing to provide alternatives to the people living there first. Caltrans has often maintained that, as a transportation agency, it is not in a position to offer shelter or housing. In a press release about the Aug. 1 closure, the agency said it was coordinating with the city of Oakland and Alameda County to provide shelter to the roughly 200 Wood Street residents living on state land.

Orrick called that “hand waving.” 

At the hearing, he asked lawyers for the city, county, and Caltrans to elaborate on those plans, and each stated that they could not provide specifics.

“It’s clear that you’ve made no progress in coming up with any sort of a plan to address where those folks might be able to stay, which is also a state-created problem,” he said. “With five days’ notice, you wanted to evict everybody without a plan.”

Caltrans did inquire with the city about sheltering residents, but there are not enough beds available, a city spokesperson told The Oaklandside earlier this week.

“The city of Oakland does not have capacity to shelter all Wood Street residents,” said Karen Boyd in an email.

Oakland has received a $4.7 million “encampment resolution” grant from the state for Wood Street, which it intends to use to open a new “community cabin” shelter there, prioritizing current residents. But that program will take several months to establish, Boyd said. Many Wood Street residents currently live in RVs, but the city’s “safe parking” lots are full.

Orrick appointed a magistrate judge to meet with Caltrans, the city, and the county to devise a plan, not just for shelter but also for storage of the residents’ belongings. He set another hearing for Aug. 26, and said he’d ponder how long to keep the restraining order in effect. 

Caltrans did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge’s order.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom criticized the ruling, mentioning the $4.7 million grant.

“Today’s decision by the court will delay Caltrans’ critical work and endanger the public,” Newsom said. “Our roadways and highways are no place for individuals to live, and this encampment is risking public health and safety.”

Residents streaming into the hearing from Wood Street said they were grateful for the extended time at the their camp. Asked at the end whether they had anything to add, the group shouted in unison, “Thank you, your honor!”

Resident Janosko said he’d like to see an opportunity to “move the masses” to a shared location.

“These are communities,” he said. “People stay at these places because they feel safe there, they provide resources to each other, and we cook meals together every night.”

Orrick warned the residents that, despite the temporary reprieve, their time on Wood Street is coming to an end.

“This is not a long-term solution,” the judge said. “The endgame is that you’re going to have to move, so residents should be thinking about what’s next.”

This story was updated with a statement made by Gov. Gavin Newsom after publication.

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.