Faced with displacement, bonds between residents are strengthening

Located at the edge of West Oakland, it spans several blocks along Wood Street, between 19th and 32nd st. It is filled with a patchwork of all types of informal residences. Tiny homes, RVs, and tents line the side of the road. The walls are covered with all manner of paint and graffiti. The neighborhood is the sight of a lot of illegal dumping and residents make the most of the construction waste in assembling their homes. Walls and partitions come together from the spare plywood, and leftover shipping pallets are used to elevate peoples’ sleeping areas off of the wet ground. Behind the easement, the abandoned lots serve as shelters from the semi- trucks, flying down the road at all hours of the day and night. People even live underneath the Highway 80 overpass.

This is the Wood Street homeless community.

On a recent afternoon in January, we had a community dinner. Once or twice a month local residents and neighbors come together and have dinner. Sharing a meal brings people together in a way that can’t always happen during the day-to- day activity of Wood Street. Folding tables were set up against the tattered chain-link fence, and entrees, plates, cups, 2-liter bottles of soda and napkins were set down on top. Somebody lights the grill and folks gather around the table. A few people gather up some firewood, and soon people gather around the bonfire as they get their food. Over two dozen neighbors crowded together and talked about the future of their community.

There is a growing sense of community on Wood Street, one of the largest homeless encampments in the City of Oakland.

Residents say that these days, the Wood Street community has grown stronger because their community is under attack. Residents have been harassed by the new owner of a lot that the community has built itself on. They have woken up to notes posted on their doors, telling them to leave and threatening to send police to get rid of them. In recent months, police have arrived and have attempted to clear the community.

“Folks are tight knit as opposed to before, where everyone was more out for themselves,” says Jesse Parker, who was born and raised in Oakland and has lived outside, on Wood Street, for five years. According to Jesse, the community has grown stronger over the last year and a half. People are working together just a little bit more.

Jesse is almost 65 years old. He lives in a green tiny home on wheels. He recently qualified for SSI benefits and was able to use some of his money to buy a white van off a friend. The van has a heater, and in the middle of winter he spends most of his time sitting in the driver’s seat. Before living on Wood Street, he was on Poplar Street, a few blocks away. He learned about Wood Street from a childhood friend, who also lives on the block. He tells me, “Wood street can be amazing or it can be terrible, it all depends on what you make of it”.

The residents of Wood Street are not the only ones trying to make something out of the area. The entire neighborhood is a site of rapid redevelopment. People moved here because so much of the land had been left abandoned. But in the last few years, the formerly abandoned land has started to be purchased. One of the lots that makes up the Wood Street community was purchased by Freder- ick B. Craves via his company, Gamechanger LLC. Craves recently announced his plans to develop the property, and this puts the future of the community in question. I ask Jesse about what he will do if he and his community are asked to leave. “Protest… protest,” he says.

Residents have woken up to notes posted on their doors telling them to leave and threatening to send police.

I walk past the lot, onto land just beneath the I-80 overpass. Land close to infrastructure like this is most often owned by the State of California under the Department of Transportation.

That’s where another resident, James Davidson lives. James was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He has been homeless on and off for the last 15 years and has lived in West Oakland for the last 3 years. During their first two years in West Oakland, he and his wife used to live in a church parking lot, where he worked as a groundskeeper to earn their keep. But eventually the situation became unsustainable. They moved to Wood Street because they had nowhere else to go.

As the private lot was purchased and scheduled to be developed, they moved further behind the street, coming to rest beneath the shadow of the overpass. He now lives in an RV surrounded by a fence he built by hand. The fence creates a little courtyard; chairs, tools, car parts lay all over the place. In the middle of the courtyard is a bonfire. During community dinners, we huddle around the fire and talk in between plumes of smoke that get into our eyes.

Though James is no longer living on private land, it is not clear what will become of homeless communities living on state land.

Gamechanger has tried to clear the lot twice since October 2018, and both times residents have rallied in protest. The development of the area does not leave any alternatives for the people being displaced. The City of Oakland has only offered a fraction of residents temporary stays in nearby emergency shelters, and only a handful have made it off the streets via pre-existing housing programs. Evictions of homeless communities leads to further instability. By remaining in place, residents win some degree of stability.

The residents of Wood Street have been largely forgotten by the city. Jesse says that, the last time anyone from the city made contact with him must have been eight months ago.

The West Oakland Wood Street community sits on city, state, and private land. The existence of this community is predicated on survival and the ongoing struggle over housing and land in the Bay Area. I imagine the city has spent more time and resources trying to force people out of the area than connecting them with any meaningful housing opportunities.

Semi-trucks fly down the pothole-riddled street in West Oakland that runs parallel to Wood Street. The street is hugged tightly by abandoned lots and warehouses. Colorful luxury developments rise out of the blightscape like pimples on somebody’s face. An office building for Lyft and a luxury condominium squeeze against a nearby park. The kids play soccer and football across the street.

This is the Wood Street Homeless Community.

Dayton Andrews is a resident of Oakland and organizer for the United Front Against Displacement (UFAD).