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Caltrans cleared to sweep Oakland’s largest homeless encampment

The judge ordered Oakland, Alameda County and Caltrans to safely relocate people and their belongings before the sweeps begin.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Dissolving an extended temporary restraining order Friday, a federal judge gave the California Department of Transportation the green light to begin sweeping an Oakland encampment which may have 200 residents.

Oakland's largest known encampment was surveyed by Governor Gavin Newsom this past April after Caltrans cited growing safety concerns. It spans large areas Caltrans owns under the freeway as well as city and railroad property. Caltrans estimates there may be 200 people living on the land, some for several years.

On July 15, the agency notified residents they would be removed, citing safety hazards due to several recent fires at the encampment. In April, a man trapped in his RV died in another fire at the camp.

Some residents filed a federal lawsuit asking for a temporary restraining order, and this month requested a preliminary injunction against Caltrans. The residents also wrote an open letter to Newsom, asking for Caltrans, the city and county to help improve fire safety at the site, such as by providing garbage removal and dumpsters and fire extinguishers.

Their case is similar to others being fought across the state, as homeless residents primarily fight Caltrans and local police departments for the right to stay in one place. Under Martin v. Boise, cities may face legal repercussions if they attempt to move people sleeping in public spaces when there aren't enough shelter beds for the number of homeless residents. But different judges have come to different conclusions to settle requests for relief from encampment sweeps, based on the conditions in each city.

Last month, U.S. District Judge William Orrick extended the temporary restraining order he awarded to Wood Street residents, chastising Oakland, Alameda County and Caltrans for not coming to an agreement to shelter the encampment's residents.

Newsom criticized Orrick’s ruling. “Our roadways and highways are no place for individuals to live, and this encampment is risking public health and safety," he said in a statement.

In a hearing Friday, Orrick reviewed the city’s relocation proposal released late Thursday night to provide shelter beds for people who are being moved. The city has more than 5,000 homeless people according to the latest survey, and needs help from the county to coordinate contacting residents about where they can access shelter.

However, county attorney William Rowell said county personnel at Wood Street only have federal funding to provide health services.

“That is the sticking point right now. The city wants to put this on the county, but the county does not have the funding or the people available,” Rowell said. 

But Orrick disagreed. 

“When the folks at Wood Street are going to be relocated, they're going to be your responsibility as much as they are the city’s, and they are residents of your county,” he said. “You can't wash your hands of the issue.”

Caltrans attorney Mark Guenzi said the agency wanted to move by Monday to start abating fire safety risks, which is why the agency filed a motion to dismiss on Aug. 11.

“The frequency of fires in that area is very concerning given the potential for catastrophic risk,” he said. 

Brigitte Nicoletti, lawyer for the plaintiffs, blamed Caltrans for not providing trash removal at the site despite residents asking for it. She also said the agency has pushed residents further north. closer to flammable materials. 

“The shelter options are not accessible for the majority of residents,” she said, noting St. Vincent de Paul's shelter is congregate and only designed for nighttime sleeping with no daytime shelter — which does not work for people with disabilities. Each time people have been moved they have lost personal property, “and there’s no reason to think this will go any differently," she told Orrick.

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Although the city’s proposal estimated about 30 people in the northern portion of Wood Street, and 40 beds will be available at six different shelters, plaintiff Ron McGowan said there are actually about 80 people living there. Jefferson said they got population estimates from Caltrans and the county, but Guenzi and Rowell said they do not have updated, accurate census information on the area's unhoused residents.

Oakland has a $4.7 million “encampment resolution” state grant city officials will use to open a new community shelter, which will take several months to establish. Plaintiff Jackson Blain said that grant could create more than 100 prefabricated homes for people on city-owned land, if the city wanted to help. He said residents’ requests for help, including with preventing fire hazards, “have fallen on deaf ears" for years.

“As a community, we come together to fight the fires way before fire departments get here,” plaintiff Ramona Choyce said. “We’re not starting it where we live. To me, it seems like somebody else is setting the fires … but it’s making us look bad.”

Orrick said he has decided to dissolve the temporary restraining order in three phases. He said without a constitutional right to housing, he cannot allow Wood Street residents to stay on Caltrans property if Caltrans wants them to be removed. And he cannot order Caltrans to do fire mitigation work. 

“It’s admittedly not a perfect proposal, but in light of the scope of homelessness in this region and current resources provided, it does its best to address the current competing needs provided by this case," he said.

Orrick said he recognizes the “upheaval” of people in the encampment and “the failure of government” to address the causes of homelessness which led to this situation. 

“This case can't solve that problem," he said. "I can’t privilege the residents of Wood Street over the thousands of homeless people in this area.”

Orrick ordered Caltrans to delay giving people notice for one week, to begin clearing the encampment in three phases starting the following week. They can start a new sweep every two weeks. He indicated he will next order the city and county to work together to safely relocate all residents.  

Although Jefferson said there are no available RV parking spots. Orrick also said the city and county must work together to find places for these RVs. He said all vehicles owned by residents need to be stored somewhere they can be immediately recovered, to prevent losing any personal property. 

“This particular solution is not a solution in any normal sense, but it is a way of addressing the problems that have been raised in a legal way, in a manner that is possible by the court,” he said. 

Nicoletti said in an email that Orrick's decision was "disappointing and frustrating" for the Wood Street community.

"Despite the immense efforts they put in to craft a plan that would both address immediate safety risks and promote long-term solutions that are desperately needed, the court chose to accept the defendants’ poorly formulated plan," she said, calling Oakland's proposal for temporary shelter "completely inadequate."

"Wood Street will be broken up and individuals will lose their homes and community," Nicoletti said. "The ruling today ignores the lived experience of the plaintiffs and exposes them to immense risk of harm."

In a joint statement, Newsom and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Orrick's lifting of the injunction will ultimately make the Wood Street residents safer.

"The court’s indication that it will lift the injunction in a week means Caltrans will hopefully be able to proceed to clean up the most dangerous portion of the Wood Street encampment in its efforts to ensure the safety of those living at the encampment and the surrounding community," Newsom and Schaaf said. "The city of Oakland will support Caltrans by providing housing outreach and offering available shelter beds to those living at the encampment, and we look forward to our continued collaboration.”

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