On Monday, city workers cleared a stretch of Wood Street close to 20th Street, while some residents stayed put in the fenced-off area, watching their belongings. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Wood Street was once home to Oakland’s largest homeless encampment and community, spanning several blocks and housing hundreds of people. 

Now, little of that is left. For the past two weeks, showing no sign of stopping until it’s done, the city has been working to try to close the entire West Oakland camp. The endeavor has been far more extensive and lengthy than any of the city’s previous sweeps at the site. Just a few tiny houses and vehicles remain on a stretch of land between 18th and 20th streets.

On Monday morning, the 15 or so remaining residents watched over their tiny houses and belongings, trying to hang on as long as they could. Around them, dozens of police officers and city workers scooped up items with bulldozers and towed vehicles. A small group of activists held hands outside the tall fence set up around the site, trying to prevent work trucks from entering.

The city administration has said it’s closing the Wood Street camp to allow for the construction of a 170-unit affordable housing development. During this closure, which began on Monday, April 10, 48 people have moved off the site, with 36 accepting shelter at the city’s new “cabin” location a few blocks away, and seven moving to one of Oakland’s RV “safe parking” programs, according to the city.

“The city is taking a thoughtful, deliberate and compassionate approach to closing the Wood Street encampment,” said LaTonda Simmons, the city’s acting homelessness administrator, in a press release. 

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Dozens of police officers have been assisting with the closure each day. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

That’s not how the past couple of weeks have felt to Lydia Blumberg, a longtime Wood Street resident.

“They want us out of sight and out of mind,” she told The Oaklandside last Thursday. “It would be nice if they worked collaboratively with us, like we’ve been asking for years.” She said residents have been pleading for dumpsters, because leaving their trash on the street attracts illegal dumping.

Since the closure began, the city said its workers have removed 300 tons of trash, and towed 29 vehicles, including six that the city said were stolen. Residents worry some of their property could be lost in the process.

Last Thursday morning, two brothers rushed back to the encampment from work when they heard cars were getting towed. One asked a police officer to let him drive his truck off the site and move his trailer to the city’s RV lot, as advocates including local clergy who’d come to support residents went to pick up gasoline for the vehicles. 

Still standing as of Monday morning were the cob structures that make up Cob on Wood, a hub at the encampment built by residents and a nonprofit, where there’s been a “free store,” a kitchen, a performance area, a health clinic, and a garden. 

“It’s hard to show people how great this place was,” said John Janosko, a spokesperson for the Wood Street Commons, as residents refer to themselves and the community they established over many years of living together. At a holiday party and art sale they held in December, residents talked about how they support one another and how Wood Street has become a central place where health services and donations can reach unhoused people who need them.

“If they want to help,” said Janosko about the city, “why don’t they go to these encampments a year before they have to do all this?” Janosko is among the residents who accepted the offer of a spot in the new city-run “community cabin” site—to make sure he could keep his dogs, he said—and a city spokesperson said there’s “plenty of capacity” there still.

City and state officials have maintained that it’s hazardous for people to continue living outdoors on Wood Street unless they’re in a sanctioned, monitored program, like a cabin site or RV lot. There have been persistent fires at the encampment—close to 100 in one recent year, according to the Oakland Fire Department.

Last year, a man died when his RV caught fire. Emergency responders have said they can’t easily access the site.

Caltrans cited these safety concerns as its reason for closing the large portion of the Wood Street camp that used to be on state land last year, following months of protests and a federal judge’s order halting, then allowing, the operation. 

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Activists hold hands, protesting in front of the encampment site and preventing work trucks from entering. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Blumberg said she lost both financially and sentimentally valuable belongings in that closure, including a boat and her grandmother’s jewelry. She is one of several residents who’ve been shuffled around the area during various closures and cleanings over the years.

During the current city closure, some residents attempted to convince a federal court judge to approve a restraining order prohibiting the operation from going forward, claiming that the city was violating their Fourth Amendment rights over the handling of their property. Judge William Orrick, the same judge who had temporarily halted Caltrans’ closure last year, denied the request in this case.

“There’s an opportunity for individuals to move anything and everything they’d like to keep,” Jamilah Jefferson, an attorney for the city, told the judge last week. “Individuals have known for three months that closure is imminent. There’s no immediate on-the-spot destruction of anything.” 

Speaking with The Oaklandside at Wood Street later in the week, Brigitte Nicoletti, the residents’ lawyer, said, “We strongly believe that the judge’s ruling was incorrect and we’re trying to figure out the best way to move forward.” Many residents have more items or vehicles than are permitted at shelter sites like the cabins.

Tensions between residents and advocates on one side, and city workers and police on the other, have risen over the past couple of weeks as the closure has progressed. A video shared over social media shows a city bulldozer driving quickly into, then out of, a site near where several people were standing. 

At another point, city workers removed surveillance cameras that had been installed around the area, prompting some observers to complain that a sensitive operation wouldn’t be documented. A city spokesperson told The Oaklandside that the cameras were installed earlier this year to track illegal dumping, and removed to pull footage after police received a warrant related to a theft.

There have been three arrests associated with the closure this month. Oakland police said they arrested two people on April 12 and another two on Thursday. The Thursday cases, where police obtained a warrant to arrest two well-known activists, one of whom lives at Wood Street, were related to allegations of theft. However, the district attorney declined to pursue charges, according to lawyer EmilyRose Johns, who was representing the activists.

The city has fenced off the encampment during the closure, generally denying journalists, community advocates, and other non-residents into the area, but permitting a small number to enter. Others were told they could observe the scene through the fence. City officials and police said the rules are intended to allow the work to continue without obstruction or safety issues. 

Earlier this year, the city administration proposed a “safe work zones” policy that would have made it a crime for anyone other than a city worker to enter such an area if ordered not to. The proposal was tabled after concerns were raised.

A resident who goes by Freeway said there were about 15 people still living on Wood Street as of Monday morning.

“We’re still sticking it out,” said Freeway, noting that some people have also been staying in motels paid for by the Anti Police-Terror Project. “The city continues to allow the police officers to pressure us into leaving our homes here, under duress.”

Freeway said the Wood Street Commons group has several “demands” for the city, including a meeting with the mayor, a pause on closures, more supportive housing, and the creation of an advisory board including residents. 

The closure was originally scheduled to take two weeks, concluding last Friday, but the city has put up notices announcing two additional weeks of work.

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.