Wood Street residents tune into a virtual court hearing in August, where a judge gave Caltrans permission to go ahead with a closure of the camp. Credit: Amir Aziz

Tensions ran high at Tuesday’s Oakland City Council meeting as officials, with Councilmember Carroll Fife most vocal, implored the city administration to act with more urgency in addressing the homelessness crisis. 

Fife wants to allow unsheltered residents who have been displaced from the Wood Street encampment, part of which is being closed by Caltrans, to relocate to the old Oakland Army Base.

But the city administration said there are problems with Fife’s request.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council directed city staff to come back with a plan on Oct. 18 that will describe how to move residents to the former army base and offer alternative support in the short-term. The decision fell short of Fife’s original proposal to immediately grant 300 unhoused people access to eight acres of the base.

“Quite frankly, I have no confidence anything will change,” said Fife, who “reluctantly and begrudgingly” voted for the amended version of her proposal, a compromise suggested by Councilmember Dan Kalb after City Administrator Ed Reiskin advised dropping plans for the army base altogether.

Over the past month, Caltrans has been shutting down a section of the Wood Street camp in West Oakland. The city’s largest camp, it’s thought to be home to hundreds of people, some of whom have lived there close to a decade and built a strong community. But the camp has experienced numerous fires and Caltrans says closure is necessary for the safety of residents and the surrounding infrastructure.

Different public and private entities own different parts of the blocks-long site. In August, a federal judge allowed Caltrans to move ahead with closing the part of the camp on its land after he’d initially granted residents a temporary restraining order until the city, county, and state came up with a plan to shelter them. 

The plan submitted by the city included emergency shelter beds for up to 40 residents. Oakland has meanwhile been closing parts of the camp on city land while also using state funds to plan a new transitional housing site there. The state recently sent Oakland a stern letter saying those funds are contingent on the city taking responsibility to house residents living on Caltrans land.

Many Wood Street residents say they are left with nowhere to go and would willingly relocate to the army base, which is on the other side of I-880 from the camp.

“This is where I feel safe, and this is where I’ve gained family,” said an eight-year Wood Street resident speaking at Tuesday’s meeting. “Please vote in favor of keeping this community together. We need and support each other.” 

Dozens of members of the public also commented in support of the move.

For months, Fife has been pushing for an emergency housing program for up to 1,000 people at a part of the old army base called the North Gateway. Two recycling companies have plans to move to the North Gateway in the near future, but it’s currently empty. In June, city staff presented a report on the concept at Fife’s request. According to the report, the site is too environmentally hazardous to be used for housing without expensive and lengthy remediation work. In response, the council indicated it wouldn’t pursue shelter there at the time.

But with Wood Street residents facing displacement from the Caltrans closure, Fife brought back the idea this week, saying it’s critical to come up with a solution.

“I am sickened by this,” said Fife, delivering an impassioned comment Tuesday. “The way we’re dealing with homelessness in Oakland is not commensurate with the crisis we’re in. My district looks insane right now because people are sitting down on the job under this administration.”

City Administrator Ed Reiskin took offense at Fife’s characterization, saying staff work hard and listing out several homelessness programs the city is pursuing. Reiskin said he planned to come to the next council meeting with a proposal to add another 50 “community cabins” to an already planned 50-cabin site at Wood Street. 

“What we implement is what we’re directed to and funded by you,” he said. “I thought we’d resolved that this wasn’t the best place to house people…including for the reason that we don’t have a dime from the council. Putting this site up for this is not an easy solution, not a common-sense solution, not an obvious solution.” 

A lawyer for the city, Ryan Richardson, said Oakland doesn’t own the land “free and clear,” because when the U.S. Army gave the city the base, the federal government prohibited residential uses there because of environmental contamination. 

“The bottom line is there is not currently a waiver in place to use it as a homelessness intervention site,” Richardson said. He also told the council there were legal issues with the proposed legislation, saying officials would be encroaching on staff’s administrative authority by requiring them to physically go to the site and “immediately allow access.” 

“This is an emergency,” Fife responded. “If I have to be charged with a charter violation—whatever needs to happen for us to take action—I’m willing to take that chance.” 

The full council, except Noel Gallo, who was absent, voted for the compromise legislation Kalb suggested.

But a longstanding and growing rift between several councilmembers and the city administration remains, with the councilmembers accusing staff of not acting with enough urgency or creativity to deal with a crisis, and staffers saying they’re doing the best they can with insufficient resources and mounting demands from the council.

“We have the same conversation repeatedly, and there’s a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the urgency here,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. 

She noted that a previous council, before Fife, worked out a plan for a sliding-scale RV park at the base, which would generate revenue to fund the program—but it went nowhere.

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.