Trays of colorful cookies, fluffy dinner rolls, pots of poinsettias, individually wrapped butter mints and candy canes, chips, dips, salsas, olives, and heavily frosted cupcakes lined the long red tables.
A Christmas tree weighted down with ornaments watched over the gathering. Drinks, alcoholic and otherwise, flowed freely. Everything was wrapped in tinsel.
It was the third annual holiday party on Wood Street, “a way to say thanks to everyone and to do the same thing everybody does,” said John Janosko. “We’ve always had that model. Just because we’re unhoused doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate life.”
The Saturday party drew dozens of people, unhoused and housed, over the course of the afternoon. They gathered at what remains of what has long been Oakland’s largest homeless encampment. The event doubled as an art show, with some residents selling drawings and paintings they created.
For the Wood Street residents, the party was a welcome moment of celebration at the end of a tough year. Dozens of fires, one deadly, broke out at the blocks-long site. Residents have been engaged in a protracted tussle, both on the ground and in court, with government agencies working to shut down the encampment, who’ve cited the fires and other safety issues. This fall, Caltrans successfully moved people off the large area owned by the state, fencing off the property.
A number of people are still living on the southernmost stretch of the West Oakland camp, around 18th and 20th streets, on land owned by the city of Oakland across from Raimondi Park. Those residents have just gotten word that the city plans to close that site, too, from Jan. 9-20. An affordable housing development is slated to be built there and can’t break ground if people are living on the property. Residents have been offered spots in the city’s emergency shelter facilities, as well as “community cabin” sites and RV parking lots, according to city spokesperson Jean Walsh.
“The city has been and is continuing to meet with Wood Street community members to ensure residents are matched to shelter according to their needs,” Walsh said.
But Janosko said the residents plan to protest the closure and hope to stay put.
“You’re not just destroying an encampment, you’re destroying a community,” he said. “People rely on this as an anchor point. Lifelong Medical comes here, we have parties, there’s clothing donations. If they do somehow take us away, we want them to know what they’re taking away. We have artists, electricians, chefs, people’s moms and dads.”
The residents call their community the Wood Street Commons and say they can govern themselves if they’re allowed access to public land and basic services.
But the looming January closure was not top of mind on Saturday. The partiers ate, drank, and chatted. Portable toilets were decorated with stockings and bows. One woman who said she’s not very extroverted hung out on the edge of the party, painting her tiny home and quietly observing the festivities.
Jeremy Beebe was among the artists selling pieces that afternoon. Wearing overalls over a shirt he’d decorated, Beebe stood next to several piles of intricate neon drawings and watercolors.
“I started [drawing] daily mandalas as a meditation device,” he said. “As an artist, there’s an amazing abundance of materials on Wood Street. That’s why I love it here.”
Susan and Barry Stock bought one of Beebe’s pieces to give as a gift. The couple moved to Oakland this year from Hollywood, Florida, and quickly began volunteering on Wood Street through Kehillah Community Synagogue. They said Oakland is nothing like Florida, where “being homeless is very criminalized,” but they expected to find more robust city services and more housed residents engaging with the people living on the streets here.
“When you have a population like this, you really have to work with the people and understand what they need in order to support them,” said Susan Stock. She and her husband have been impressed with the systems the Wood Street residents have established and empathize with them, having lost their own house and jobs in the 2008 financial crisis.
Theo Cedar Jones, a former Wood Street resident now living with other “Caltrans refugees” a few blocks away on Pine Street, said he hopes the newly elected Oakland officials take a different tack. The planned Jan. 9 closure starts the same day Mayor-elect Sheng Thao and the new city councilmembers will be sworn in.
Thao didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about her plans for Wood Street.
Some of the residents displaced from the parts of the camp owned by Caltrans and the railroad have accepted the government offers of shelter and housing. Many others have simply reparked their RVs on surrounding streets, snaking around the park. Beebe said he’s considered moving into one of the city’s “safe parking” sites for RVs—there’s one on Wood Street, with security, showers, and social services—but said the rules at those sites make them feel “institutionalized” and “like incarceration,” which he’s experienced in the past.
“It goes between love and hate, my relationship with this place,” Beebe said of Wood Street. “But I think that if I had a place that was more brick and mortar, I’d still be down here. For the materials, the people, the freedom.”