A group of Shellmound encampment residents an their lawyers huddle together in conversation. They are standing next to a freeway exit on the sidewalk, wearing warm jackets and hats.
Encampment residents speak to their lawyers, Andrea Henson and EmilyRose Johns, about next steps. (Mark Leong)

After a federal judge blocked the City of Emeryville from closing an encampment on Shellmound Street last month, the district court has ruled that encampment residents must move. The group lived adjacent to a construction site which the judge deemed a safety hazard. Despite this development, the community plans to continue litigation for adequate shelter, whether that be permanent housing or simply a secure place to live outside. 

Residents of the Shellmound encampment community and their supporters argue that displacing unsheltered people during the coronavirus pandemic is illegal. At the end of April, advocacy group Where Do We Go Berkeley, or WDWGB, spearheaded legal action against the city and began working alongside residents to litigate their case for sheltering at the site. 

“I guess their goal is to sweep the homeless people out to the next city, basically out of sight. There’s not really any long-term solutions on the table,” says Jon Reed, lead plaintiff on the case. 

Reed says he has been evicted from several encampment settings over the years, and feels that the widespread strategy of encampment closures causes more harm than good for people who live outside. According to Reed, the only path toward securing necessary resources, including funding, will be organizing in the homeless community. 

“Basically, I think homelessness is being criminalized. Poverty is being criminalized,” he says. “I think it’s going to have to come down to people in the encampments organizing and demanding what is theirs.” 

The City of Emeryville offered Shellmound residents temporary shelter at St. Vincent DePaul, an overnight shelter in Oakland where the city rents a handful of beds. Placement in Oakland’s Tuff Sheds was also on offer. 

“People who are trying to break us up and send us in different places, they’re disrupting the seams of the fabric of society,” she says. “They’re pulling the threads. When you pull one thing, the whole thing unravels.”

Reed said he was initially open to the Tuff Sheds, and spent one night there to check them out. Upon his visit, however, he was surprised to learn there was a curfew, and that the sheds didn’t have electricity or running water. Additionally, he would have had to share the 10 x 12 foot space with a roommate. 

“[At the encampment], I already was absent running water, and electricity was easier to get to. And there wasn’t any curfew,” he explained. 

Advocates argue that these options are not adequate amid the pandemic, as both would force residents into close proximity with other people. Additionally, advocates argue that they are not adequately accessible for people with disabilities. These considerations are particularly pertinent because most of the Shellmound residents are seniors or live with disabilities.After the judge ruled that the encampment must relocate, advocates from WDWGB tried to identify a new outdoor space where the group could settle. But after being turned away from a handful of potential new locations by public works employees, other unsheltered people, and Emeryville Police, WDWGB decided to house the Shellmound plaintiffs in a hotel for a week to regroup.

Ian Cordova Morales kneels amidst scattered trash and encampment resident possessions, loading things into black trash bags.
Ian Cordova Morales helps clean and pack up in preparation for the eviction. (Mark Leong)

In the ruling, the City of Emeryville was ordered to assist with the move, but few specifics were outlined, according to Ian Cordova Morales, president and lead advocate with WDWGB.

Cordova Morales said the only help residents received from the city were unusable plastic trash liners and an offer to store belongings in a corporate lot for 90 days. 

The City of Emeryville declined to comment on specifics of the encampment relocation. 

Instead, Morales said the group has conducted the whole move themselves and have spent over $10,000 on new tents, moving trucks and supplies, food, and hotel rooms so far. 

“We take responsibility for these people,” says Cordova Morales. “Everybody is responsible for these people. Every single person in society is responsible to make sure that they’re okay.”

The Shellmound lawsuit is the latest in a series of recent legal actions to protect the rights of houseless people in California. Advocates are increasingly using the courts to halt encampment evictions and fight parking bans—and in many cases, the unhoused plaintiffs are winning. 

The California Homeless Union recently convinced judges in Sausalito, Sacramento, and Santa Cruz to pause encampment evictions, while a group of RV dwellers in Pacifica sued the city in March, attempting to block an ordinance prohibiting RVs from parking in certain parts of the city. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Sonoma County, Tulare County, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

Gabe pokes his head out of his tent. He is surrounded by a big pile of his belongings, as well as trash bags for moving. An American flag pokes out of the refuse behind him. Red and green string lights are attached to his tent.
Gabe, one of the Shellmound plaintiffs, in his tent. The group has now moved into hotel as they consider next steps. (Mark Leong)

As in many of these cases, encampment residents are simply tired of being pushed around.

“I have to relive being thrown out on the street,” says Laura Berry, another plaintiff in the Shellmound case. Berry says encampment sweeps cause major psychological distress, leaving unhoused people to repeatedly experience the trauma of losing their housing. 

“People who are trying to break us up and send us in different places, they’re disrupting the seams of the fabric of society,” she says. “They’re pulling the threads. When you pull one thing, the whole thing unravels.”

Berry says she has been living outside since being the victim of an illegal foreclosure. She explains that homelessness can lead one to falling beyond rock bottom, and describes the experience as falling into a deep hole that one must climb out of before being able to find their footing. 

Encampments can act as communities, and with the help of groups like WDWGB, Berry says unsheltered people can get the resources they need to care for and support themselves. With such goals in mind, WDWGB is hoping the case can secure adequate housing for Shellmound residents or find another stable location where the community can thrive. 

According to Reed, their asks are fairly simple.

“All people really want is just a place to call their own. Just to feel secure and have control over their living space,” he says. “For a lot of people, that wouldn’t be quite much more than a vacant lot with a fence around it. We could go from there.” 

Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.