Solutions for housing and homelessness from residents of Oakland’s largest encampment
It has been a busy month for our community on Wood Street. After Caltrans abruptly stated last month that they planned to sweep the whole encampment of 200 people by the first week in August, we took to the courts, winning a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) from a federal judge that allowed us to stay put until Caltrans worked with the City of Oakland, as well as Alameda County, to come up with a plan for sheltering us. The lawsuit proved disgraceful for Caltrans, as well as the City of Oakland: shortly after the TRO was issued, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statement threatening to pull $4.7 million in funding for a temporary shelter project the city had planned for Wood Street.
We wrote the letter below in response to Newsom’s statement. It urges city, county, and state officials to consider our own solutions for housing this community as they negotiated the existing plans.
Shortly after we first published this letter, the second hearing on the Caltrans sweep took place. On August 26 2022, Judge William Orrick ordered to dissolve the TRO against the City of Oakland, Alameda County, BNSF, and Caltrans, allowing them to post a sweep notice for September 5. This means that on that date, Caltrans will begin evicting folks from Wood Street in phases. Though the city told the judge that they had identified 40 available congregate shelter beds, most of us have nowhere to go.
The Wood Street community stands strong in our determination to keep our community together. We plan to continue organizing and fighting for long-term and permanent housing solutions—solutions Judge Orrick even voiced his support for in his order to dissolve the TRO. He wrote: “Homelessness is a difficult social problem that requires public policy solutions. These plaintiffs have effectively and movingly spoken about the community they have built and what it means to them. They have also presented many ideas for public policy solutions; the State, City, and County would be well-advised to incorporate the input and involvement of them and other individuals experiencing homelessness into their policymaking.”
Dear Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Libby Schaaf, City Administrator Ed Reiskin, Director of Caltrans Toks Omishakin, Caltrans District Deputy Director of External Affairs Cheryl Chambers, BNSF CEO Kathryn Farmer, and Alameda County Administrator Susan S. Muranishi:
We, the community of Wood Street invite you to join us in partnership in creating and implementing solutions that will meet the needs of the State of California, Caltrans, Alameda County, BNSF, the City of Oakland, and the residents of Wood street.
On July 22, 2022, Judge William Orrick stated that all involved parties in the Blain et al v. Caltrans et al case must work together to create a plan.
Our time in the streets, under freeways, and along the rails has taught us which City, State, and County interventions are most helpful and harmful. We have ideas and solutions that will not only make our lives better but will improve the overall safety and progress of the Oakland community at large. We welcome this opportunity to collaborate.
We want our voices to be heard, we want our ideas sprung from years of lived experience to have a seat at the table. “Nothing about us without us.”
We live our struggle and therefore know it more intimately than anyone else and have the clearest understanding of how to resolve it. We are inspired, hopeful, and teeming with the possibilities that could be actualized through the combination of our ideas and the resources readily available to your agencies. This is not a bureaucratic exercise for us; our lives and wellbeing are at stake.
Over the years we have made conscious efforts to remediate the safety concerns held by ourselves, Caltrans, and Oakland at large. We are part of the history of Oakland. We are citizens of Oakland, we are builders, we are parents, we are chefs; and we have been let down by failed systems that put us on the streets. Nonetheless our investment in Oakland has not faltered. We have worked to remove debris buildup on Wood Street to reduce fire and health risks on top of meeting our survival needs day to day. In this way we have compensated for Caltrans and The City of Oakland’s negligence and failure to work with us in the past. We have reached out numerous times to your agencies for access to dumpsters, fire extinguishers, sand buckets, hoses, and assistance creating markers throughout Wood Street so that emergency service providers can quickly respond to the locations of emergencies.
We urge you to join us in taking immediate action to remediate fire danger in the community as we work together to come up with long term solutions. Our immediate and long term proposals can be found at the end of this letter, which we shared with Judge Illman on August 1 2022, and which were also included in our briefing.
So many of us in curbside communities such as Wood Street have grown weary and let down by temporary band-aid solutions. Our fostered sense of community and stability is nearly impossible to retain when you evict us from our homes, destroying our belongings, to pile us into programs for a time, just to filter us back out into the streets. So many of the existing interventions tell us where we cannot go and cannot be. This is why we feel it is crucial for the city, the county, and the state to designate land in the long term for housing crisis solutions where we can be. We need land where residents can stay for as long as they need without fear of being kicked out on some arbitrary timeline. We need solutions that center, foster, and integrate the communities we have made for ourselves. That way these spaces can be governed by the residents’ own pre-made social agreements— while also giving us access to social services and amenities that will help us to thrive, such as: access to electricity, clean potable water, bathrooms and showers, regular medical care, therapy options, and consistent access to housing navigation.
The current temporary solutions are expensive and ineffective; we have long term solutions that work and are more fiscally responsible. For example, we calculated that with the 4.7 million dollars alone that the state granted the city to shelter 50 people temporarily on rented-Game Changers land we could permanently house 120 people in refabbed shipping container homes with electricity and running water on designated land for long-term living (ex. Texas Community First Village). Part of the land could also be set aside to create space for individuals who wish to continue living in their tents, RVs, and other vehicles. We can implement the centralized cooking model we developed at Wood Street to cut down on individual private use of propane and other accelerants near people’s belongings and homes.
With our social and sustainable living innovations combined with your agencies’ social services and resources, we together can create a stable base for people to live in a community that elevates our focus beyond survival and empowers us to thrive. Through this court process we have been reaching out our hands in partnership, but have been dismayed to find your palms closed with fingers pointing. We want your help in this struggle to make our communities caring, safe, and self-sustaining. We have ideas and tools for its birth and with the aid of your agencies’ resources we could create a more compassionate and humane road to housing.
In Solidarity and Love,
The Wood Street Community
Increase fire safety
• Remove trash & debris in coordination with resident leaders
• Provide several dumpsters spaced throughout Wood St (*Providing dumpsters would NOT lead to increased illegal dumping by non-residents. While individuals do sometimes come to Wood St to discard incriminating or unwanted items, the presence of dumpsters would not make those people any more likely to do so, and would immensely enhance the safety and sanitation of the encampment.)
• Just as Caltrans pays crews to do cleaning, could pay residents to begin cleaning their areas
• Could allow residents to fill dumpsters themselves
• Could bring cleaning crew in to work with residents to identify refuse
• Place pet-friendly gravel on roadways to facilitate both clean up and emergency response efforts
CALTRANS IN COORDINATION WITH OAKLAND EMERGENCY SERVICE PROVIDERS
• Establish marked zones within Wood St to help emergency personnel respond promptly
OAKLAND EMERGENCY SERVICE PROVIDERS
• Provide fire extinguishers and sand buckets to residents. Have hoses on sight
• Hold fire safety and basic emergency response trainings (CPR, Narcan use, etc)
CITY OF OAKLAND AND COUNTY OF ALAMEDA
• Establish more centralized cooking areas like the area at Cob on Wood where residents can come together to cook, so that individual use of propane and other accelerants is discouraged.
• Provide some centralized access to electricity so residents can charge cellphones and other necessary items
• Would reduce residents’ need to find electricity through other means
• Would increase residents’ ability to connect with service providers and thus expedite the housing navigation process
• Could be done using solar panels
Increase sanitation and safety
CITY OF OAKLAND AND COUNTY OF ALAMEDA
• Provide access points where residents can get clean water throughout the camp
• Provide more regularly cleaned portapotties with handwashing stations to reduce spread of illness
• Provide a shower truck that visits different areas of Wood St frequently
• Provide solar powered lights throughout camp to increase safety
Long Term Solutions
• Short-term solutions do not work!
• When forced to move frequently, residents lose belongings, lose community, and cannot build a sense of stability
• People need to be able to stay for as long as they need—not be kicked out based on arbitrary timelines
• Plan must allow residents to stay together in community
• Community guidelines and governance should be crafted by residents—they know what works best and how they can thrive
• No unnecessarily rigid rule structures like those found in shelters
• No curfews
• No visitation policies
• No lockouts
• Different living options: RV and vehicular options; Tiny Homes; Support to transition to permanent housing like apartments, homes
• Return of taken property
• Management of stolen cars – but not cars that belong to residents that just need updated smog check/registration/other
Wood Street Residents’ Vision
LAND AND LOCATION
Residents need another space to move to together as a community. Proposal: 22-acre parcel of Oakland City land near Wood St or any other large parcel
• Spacious: many people could be there and this would not lead to crowding conditions that lead to safety risks
• Could be initially set aside for residents of Wood St, but in time could accommodate many homeless residents in Oakland.
In the same neighborhood:
• Residents receive support from housed neighbors in their community who know them and care about them
• Residents have jobs near Wood St and need to remain local
• Parcels of land Governor ordered agencies to designate as possible sites for temporary encampments (Executive Order N-23-20)
• Tax-defaulted land in Alameda County
• Space for RVs, boxcars, trailers
• Part of the land could be set aside to create a community for individuals who wish to continue living in their RVs and other vehicles. Individuals could have a small, designated yard surrounding their RVs. Community guidelines could be in place to dictate spacing between RVs and yard maintenance.
• Tiny Homes: Tiny Homes are immensely preferable to Pallet Shelters. They are warmer, more secure, and can be customized to truly feel like homes. They could be spaced appropriately far from each other to prevent overcrowding. Could also use shipping containers (fireproof, can be customized)
• Community Center: There should be centralized community spaces where residents can gather, do their cooking, and access resources. This space could be far from any fire hazards. Centralizing cooking would prevent residents from needing to use propane/generators in their own spaces, reducing fire risk.
• The community should be led by its residents.
• Classes on manners and community building to promote being good neighbors
• It could function like a job training site: Contractors could help teach residents how to build the tiny homes, giving needed job experience.
• Residents could be trained in the housing navigation process so that they can assist each other.
• At a minimum, there should be charging stations for residents’ phones and lighting for safety.
• Access to clean water
• Access to bathrooms and showers
• At a minimum, well-maintained portapotties and shower truck present daily
• Access to regular medical care
• Access to housing navigation
This letter was written by the plaintiffs on the Blain et al v. Caltrans et al case, all of whom currently reside at Wood Street.