A temporary homeless camp sprung up at City Hall on Tuesday, where displaced unhoused residents called on the city to open up land for their community. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Early Tuesday morning, a group of unhoused residents and supporters pitched several tents in front of Oakland City Hall.

But the structures were not there to serve as shelter. They were a form of protest.

The residents came from the sprawling Wood Street encampment, where Caltrans has been working to close the portion of the camp that’s on state land for several weeks. The closure, which Caltrans attributes to frequent fires and safety hazards at the site, has displaced some 200 residents.

With the tent demonstration, the residents said they were calling attention to their lack of alternative options for shelter and pressuring the city to do something about it.

“Don’t evict people without places to send them,” said former Wood Street resident LaMonte Ford. Microphone in hand, he made his remarks facing City Hall to make it clear he was sending a message to decision-makers. 

Ford has lived in various West Oakland camps over the past eight years and fears the loss of the support system he’s found on Wood Street.

Before moving there, “I was going to commit suicide,” he said. “Instead of that, I found a piece of land, brotherhood, and structure. These are all the things you don’t see.” 

Though Caltrans’ closure affects state-owned land, a federal judge has told the city and county they’re partially responsible for finding shelter or housing for the 200 or so people living there. The tent protest was scheduled to coincide with a City Council meeting, where officials were set to vote on several next steps for the residents.

One step closer to new ‘cabin’ program, army base shelter

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council approved plans to double the number of “community cabins” at a shelter opening in January on Wood Street. Oakland is already using $4.7 million from the state to open 50 cabins on Wood, prioritizing displaced residents, and Tuesday’s vote authorizes another $3.6 million in state money for 50 more. At cabin sites, residents live in small sheds, either alone or with roommates, and have access to social services.

The council also directed the city administration to pursue a waiver to establish a transitional housing program at the old Oakland Army Base, where Wood Street residents could eventually move. When the federal government gave Oakland the site after it was decommissioned in the 1990s, it blocked the city from using it as housing, due to likely environmental hazards, so a waiver from the state is needed to move forward. 

The council vote approved $100,000 to hire a consultant to start the waiver application process and directed the city to seek out another $80,000 to fully cover the estimated cost. However, it will likely be many months before the city opens a homelessness program there, if not years. And there are existing plans to move two recycling companies to the portion of the site in question, called the North Gateway.

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Former Wood Street residents LaMonte Ford speaks at a rally Tuesday morning, saying he found “brotherhood” at the encampment. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

For weeks, the city administration and some councilmembers have clashed over the use of the army base, which is located just across I-880 from Wood Street. Councilmember Carroll Fife, whose district includes Wood Street and the army base, has made passionate pleas for using the area as a shelter, blasting the administration for dragging its feet and accusing staff of failing to treat the homelessness crisis like an emergency. 

City Administrator Ed Reiskin has repeatedly urged the council to drop the army base idea, saying the potentially hazardous site would take untold amounts of money and time to repurpose as a residence, starting with the cost of the waiver. He said the waiver process includes several months of site testing and analysis. 

“There are alternatives that would be faster and cheaper,” Reiskin told the council Tuesday, proposing that the council direct the $180,000 towards renting two other vacant Caltrans properties. 

Fife scoffed at his comments about the price of the waiver.

“You all sneeze at $180,000. We just had an audit about millions of dollars,” she said, referencing findings that Oakland spent $69 million on homelessness programs over three years but largely fell short of goals to move people into housing. 

The two other Caltrans lots in question are both in West Oakland, on Mandela Parkway and Beach Street, and could be used as sites for people living in vehicles. There was a previous RV program at Beach Street, and the city just renewed its lease with Caltrans to reopen the program. However, the site only has room for 18 RVs, and the city will need to identify funding if it wants to keep the program running. 

The Mandela site could potentially house 75 vehicle dwellings, and Caltrans has agreed to rent it to the city. However, ongoing use of both sites, with service providers and security, could cost $2 million annually, Reiskin warned.

The council ultimately approved the army base waiver plan, with Councilmember Noel Gallo voting no and Councilmember Dan Kalb abstaining. Councilmembers also told the administration to explore possibilities at the other two sites, coming back to the council with a plan for the Mandela lot.

Wood Street closure was a ‘cataclysm,’ resident says

Where are the former Wood Street residents now? In a report to the council, Reiskin said “all people displaced have been offered shelter.”

By last week, 92 people had accepted those offers, 108 declined them, and four people were still living at the camp, according to the city. The offers included a range of emergency shelters and transitional housing, including community cabins, RV lots, and hotel-style facilities. 

Many Wood Street residents, the majority of whom were living in vehicles at the camp, have said the particular sites offered to them don’t fit their needs, for example, requiring them to give up their trailer or give away their pets. 

In other cases, “our outreach teams report that a common narrative they are hearing from people who have flat-out declined support is that housing is a right and therefore should be free, and they say [they] will only accept their own free apartment,” Reiskin wrote.

At the rally outside City Hall, displaced residents said their goal is to stay together as a group.

“You’re breaking up our community…which is my family,” said Kelly Castillo, who’s lived on Wood Street for three years. “This is a total cataclysm, complete devastation.” 

She implored the city to “cut through the red tape,” giving them access to land immediately without involving contractors, service providers, and consultants.

“We’re capable of governing ourselves,” she said.

Following the encampment closure, a group of residents attempted unsuccessfully to relocate to the other vacant lots owned by Caltrans.

Some people moved to the lot at Mandela Parkway and 34th Street until California Highway Patrol officers came and kicked them out. They also attempted to move to the Beach Street site before it was officially reopened but weren’t allowed on. 

After the council vote Tuesday, the group at City Hall wrapped up its protest, never intending to stay the night. They took down their tents and looked for the next place to land.

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.