A photo of an encampment that stretches down a long block, with lots of self-built structures facing the street. The structures are made out of wood and pallets.
The Wood Street encampment in November, 2018. (Alastair Boone)

In late July, a federal judge ruled that Caltrans cannot close West Oakland’s Wood Street encampment until the state agency comes up with a viable plan to shelter its 200-some residents. On July 15, Caltrans issued a vague press release saying they planned to close the entire Wood Street encampment by August 1, citing safety concerns after a large fire earlier that week. At the time, the agency said it planned to partner with the city to shelter residents, but did not provide any details about where or how. In response, 29 encampment residents filed for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and won, delaying the sweep until a hearing could take place. 

On July 22 during the hearing about whether or not to extend the TRO, Judge WIlliam H. Orrick said the agency was not adequately prepared to close the encampment, and extended the TRO, ruling that Caltrans would need to partner with the city and county to come up with a concrete plan for where and how to shelter Wood Street residents—and provide storage for their belongings. This is a huge win for the encampment, which is now allowed to remain in place until the next hearing, on August 26. 

“It’s clear that you’ve made no progress in coming up with any sort of a plan to address where those folks might be able to stay, which is also a state-created problem,” Judge Orrick told representatives for the government agencies at the Zoom hearing. “With five days’ notice, you wanted to evict everybody without a plan. 

Three of the unhoused plaintiffs spoke during the hearing, describing how this sweep would impact them, particularly on such short notice. 

“If the evictions go through, all my stuff is gone,” said John Janosko, who called in from the hospital, where he was being treated for a bacterial infection. If the sweep happened on the planned timeline, he would be in the hospital, unable to pack up his stuff, he said. “I have a trailer with a dog and cat. I’m hoping there’s more time to figure out a solution, versus just throwing [residents] and dispersing them into the surrounding neighborhood.” 

Kelly Thompson spoke about the destabalizing effects of sweeps, saying “it’s very difficult having to pack up and move every two or three months and relocate and find a place that’s secure enough.” 

Lawyers for Caltrans stressed that the encampment poses an urgent fire risk, explaining that the mid-July blaze had burned dangerously close to an East Bay Municipal Utility District facility with oxygen tanks. Orrick ultimately agreed that the Wood Street encampment would need to be closed, but not until the state and local government came up with a better plan to shelter people. 

“The defendants will need to figure out a better plan. I am disappointed they haven’t already. But Wood street will not be able to continue, and residents should be thinking about what’s next,” Orrick said. “I understand everybody wants to wash their hands of this particular problem, and that’s not going to happen.” 

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.