As legal action forces the City to close the harborside encampment, residents face fire, fear, and confusion
November 12 went better than most residents of the Union Point Park encampment expected it to.
As the morning gave way to midday, the lone Department of Public Works (DPW) truck that many residents thought the City of Oakland had sent to evict them only cleared away a few items of trash. Multiple residents reported that the height of the morning’s events was when Public Works employees attempted to clear one tent before protestors grabbed hold of it and moved it to safer ground.
A sense of cautious calm settled across the harborside encampment, which had for the past several days been occupied with the urgent clatter of residents preparing to pack up their homes and save their belongings from being destroyed in the eviction that most residents believed would happen on November 12 and 13. This confusion amongst residents was caused by a series of pink closure notices that had been posted in certain areas of the park earlier in the month. According to the City’s Encampment Management Policy, pink notices are used when an encampment is being permanently closed.
“The Public Works Department has deemed this site uninhabitable and all persons are expected to vacate this site and remove all personal belongings,” the signs read, specifying that residents must vacate by November 12-13. According to the postings, the section of the park scheduled for closure was the “Union Point non-allowable zone,” a vague geographical description that most residents did not understand.
The City did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story. But in a city council Meeting on October 20, Oakland Homeless Administrator Daryel Dunston said this about the closure of the encampment at Union Point Park: “By November 15, we have to…make sure that folks are in the designated area at Union Point Park. But the closure is not scheduled until February.”
After the truck was gone, residents set about their day. Eddie, who has lived at the park for several years, talked to a neighbor named Mike about his recently completed art project, a sculpture of a delicately tangled knot of tree roots he salvaged from another part of the park. In calmer times Eddie sold his work in antique stores.
Earlier in the day, Eddie, who is 65, greeted his son who had driven in from out of town in an RV. Their plan was to use his son’s RV to store Eddie’s belongings, driving the RV somewhere nearby for a few days. Eddie hoped to return to the park after city officials left, unpacking his belongings before his son returned home.
Some of the residents who live in RVs had similar plans.
Nearby, Lucy Parker, another long-time resident of the encampment, called to her dog Sassy, who was sniffing, curious, at the legs of legal advocates who scribbled notes about the day’s events on clipboards at the park’s entrance.
Lucy has long been a leader in the community, frequently handling disputes and chatting with visitors.
Sassy’s two puppies stuck their heads out from an opening in the front of Lucy’s shelter, surveying. Dawn, a former resident of the encampment who had come to help in case of an eviction, calmed the dogs as they yapped at a stranger passing by.
“I’ve got housing now, but this is my family,” Dawn said. “I’ll always come back to fight for them.”
The dramatic history of Union Point Park
There are a number of reasons why these eviction notices caused concern amongst those who live at Union Point Park. Many residents are no strangers to being evicted. The City has been trying to permanently close the encampment for years, and the Union Point Park community has been evicted at least twice in the last three years. In 2018 the city permanently closed the encampment, pushing dozens of residents onto a narrow strip of Embarcadero where cars and trucks travelled down the busy roadway just inches from their tents.
“They are migrating …They don’t have a set place, is that the solution? It’s not the long-term solution, but if you have one or two RVs in a particular location and then after a certain amount of time they move to another location citywide, that’s a lot better than 20 RVs in one spot,” Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries said of another eviction at Union Point that took place a year later.
Many residents feel differently. Union Point Park is their home, and the people who live there, their community. After being evicted in 2018 and 2019, it was only a matter of months before residents returned to the park.
Furthermore, it’s not just past evictions that stirred fear amongst encampment residents in mid-November. Conflict between the City of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) has roiled the encampment since 2019.
Even before the partial closure scheduled for November 12, the future was uncertain for encampment residents, who were already facing an impending eviction with an ordered completion date of February 2021. This was the result of a Cease and Desist Order sent to the City of Oakland by the BCDC on October 15, 2020.
The BCDC is a regional commission that was established in 1965 by the McAteer-Petris Act as a temporary state agency charged with preparing a plan for the long-term use of the Bay.
Amendments made to the McAteer-Petric Act in 1969 made the BCDC a permanent agency, and in 1977 the California State Legislature granted the BCDC the jurisdiction to issue Cease and Desist Orders (CDOs) to government agencies. CDOs can only be issued when a person or governmental agency has undertaken, or is threatening to undertake, activities that require a permit from the BCDC.
In the 20-odd years since BCDC granted the City operating rights of the Union Point Park in 2003, public resentment towards the City’s alleged mismanagement of the homeless population at Union Point has mounted.
A petition levied by the North Kennedy Tract neighborhood against the City in 2019 alleged that public use of Union Point Park was rendered “impossible” due to the park’s being “overrun” with homeless campers.
“The park is no longer inviting or appropriate for the community,” the petition continues. “It has been ‘privatized’ by the homeless.”
The petition, signed by 104 residents and business owners in the North Kennedy Tract neighborhood, also points to alleged increases in crime and violence in the community caused by “homeless activity,” factors which might negatively affect local businesses and families.
Numerous complaints were also filed about the encampment residents by Brock de Lappe, the Harbor Master at the Alameda Marina where Union Point Park is located. He complained specifically about homeless populations blocking access to showers that were reserved for use by Marina tenants.
In an email he sent in June 2018, de Lappe asks: “Why should a relatively few individuals, who are willing to break the law, be allowed to remove this potentially beautiful shoreline park from the use and enjoyment by the general public?”
The common response among unsheltered residents of Union Point Park hits back quite simply: “Aren’t we a part of that general public, too?”
Fire strikes Union Point
November 13 wrought destruction and confusion as a two-alarm fire swept through the Cryer Building, which sits adjacent to the eastern edge of the encampment. The building—an old boatyard that has been out of operation since 1989—has been owned by the City of Oakland for years, and was most recently used as a storage facility before it was red-tagged in August.
The fire only heightened tensions at the park. As the building burned, Harbor Master de Lappe pulled his phone out to film. When protesters approached him and accused him of terrorizing the community, De Lappe became visibly angry. “You think I did this?” he asked, gesturing to the structure engulfed in flames.
While none of the encampment residents lived inside the building that caught fire, one resident lived beneath it, near the waterfront. Though he lost his structure and belongings, he was safe.
Lucy lost everything in the fire: two structures containing all her belongings, including clothing, food, her bed, her TV, and her animal care supplies. She and her four dogs had lived in the self-constructed shelter for more than a decade. Recently, she and her boyfriend discovered an opportunity to move into more stable housing, and were planning on moving the belongings in the coming weeks.
At least two other shelters were badly damaged.
Matt, one of the first encampment residents to notice smoke rising from the building at around 9:00 a.m., told a member of the fire crew that he had looked inside the smoking building in the fire’s first minutes and seen what looked like to him to be signs of deliberate arson.
Nobody was physically hurt by the fire, which raged for more than three hours while crews worked to stop its spread, but residents of the encampment were left wondering what this meant for their already uncertain futures at the park.
“We don’t know when they’ll come back,” another long-time encampment resident named Eddie said of city officials carrying out encampment evictions. “But they’ll come back.”
The uncertain future of Union Point Park
BCDC staff and City staff have developed “a plan to resolve the situation” at Union Point, and in February of 2020 BCDC issued a Cease and Desist Order that would obligate the eviction of the Union Point Park Encampment.
Under the CDO, the City was required to “relocate” individuals residing in the park to a “temporary reprieve zone” within the park, and provide services like social outreach, alternative housing options, portable toilet stations, and weekly garbage pickup to the people living within that zone.
The original CDO required that residents of the reprieve zone be evicted no later than May 1, 2020. However, the City ceased most planned encampment evictions in March after the City Council ratified a State of Emergency Declaration in response to the rapid spread of the COVID-19. This falls in line with the CDC guidelines for how cities should manage homeless encampments during the pandemic.
Further complaints from upset Marina residents, however, led the Committee to consider an amendment to the CDO that would require that residents of the encampment be evicted prior to the end of the COVD-19 emergency.
In late summer, the Cease and Desist Order was revised to say that the Union Point Park encampment must be closed by February 12, 2021, which may be before the City has rescinded the COVID-19 declaration of emergency. February 2021 may also be before the Alameda County Public Health Department has fully lifted the mandatory shelter in place order that was issued in March.
“We are working to meet those requirements of that legal action,” Daryel Dunston said at a City Council meeting on October 20, citing the deep cleaning that occured at the park on November 4 and 5, and the partial closure on November 12 and November 13 as evidence of the City’s efforts thus far. “February 12 is the date that BCDC has given to the city. And we will be ramping up to that operation.”
City officials have begun the process of offering residents housing, as is stipulated in their new Encampment Management Policy, which is set to take full effect on January 1. Earlier in November, several female residents with children were moved to a nearby hotel. It is not clear whether these individuals received permanent housing after their hotel stay expired on November 17, or if they returned to the street.
Many residents are skeptical of the City’s effort to move them away from their encampment community. Resident Mike Newman describes frustrating interactions with several nonprofits, including Operation Dignity—one of the the main organizations that contracts with the City of Oakland to move unsheltered people into housing—saying they would help him find shelter, to no results.
When they do supply shelter, it’s often in a bad neighborhood, or unable to meet his and his girlfriend’s requirements, Newman says.
“We’ve got a dog, but the last couple of times they found places they weren’t pet-friendly,” he says. “We’ve been told we can go to Mandela,” he said, referring to the Tuff Sheds sponsored by the city on Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. “There’s a storage shed place around there, but I’ve heard it’s a pretty bad neighborhood.”
Mike says he’s had especially bad experiences with Operation Dignity—nicknamed “Operation Undignified” by many encampment residents. “They told me and my girlfriend that they would get us homes, had us sign papers, but nothing’s happened.”
Eddie—the resident whose son drove in from out of town to help his father store his belongings—wants to leave the encampment eventually, but says being forced out by the City or other regional bodies is not a sustainable way of doing things.
“I’m 65 years old,” he said, “and I’m trying to get out of here. But they’re not letting me. They have to let people get out of here, instead of trashing our stuff and pushing us to a different stretch of the street.”
On the 13th, as the fire became contained and the initial panic at the sight of the burning building subsided, residents walked throughout the encampment, checking in on one another.
Most did not know if or when the city would be back to evict them.
Katherine Blesie is a reporter and editor for the Daily Californian’s Weekender magazine.