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Oakland cleared to resume dismantling homeless camp

Oakland promises to offer cabins and RV parking to unsheltered people who will be removed from the Wood Street community. But unhoused people say they are unsure shelter will materialize.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — People living in a homeless encampment in West Oakland will likely be moved this month after a federal judge on Friday lifted a block he placed on the city. 

Around 60 people remain at the city-owned, three-acre site by the highway — nearby where, on the same street this past fall, Caltrans got the OK to remove more than 200 people. Residents have filed multiple lawsuits claiming Oakland has not offered enough shelter options to justify moving them from the site. 

The latest litigation by plaintiffs John Janosko and Jaz Colibri asks U.S. District Judge William Orrick III to keep a temporary restraining order blocking sweeping the camps. But after a hearing Friday, Orrick issued an order ending the block, which allows sweeps to proceed. He said the city's intent to build an affordable housing development on the site is in the public interest.

"Though the eviction will inevitably cause hardship for the plaintiffs, that hardship is mitigated by the available shelter beds and the improved weather conditions," he wrote. "Allowing plaintiffs to stay would prohibit the city from moving forward with its development plans to implement an effective long-term measure to address homelessness."

In their 18-page complaint filed Jan. 4, plaintiffs say the city must first demonstrate that there will be enough shelter for all evicted people. They say the city has no urgent reason to clear Wood Street, and that the county has $300 million in homelessness assistance funding including $4.7 million earmarked for the Wood Street encampment. The last point-in-time homeless count, conducted in February 2022, estimated that there are 5,055 people experiencing homelessness in Oakland, 3,337 of whom are unsheltered. 

The plaintiffs say the shelters are full.

“The streets of Oakland are already full of unhoused persons, many of whom were previously evicted from their encampments. The outreach services that defendant referred to in previous court filings have not materialized. If that were not bad enough, the pandemic continues to rage, and Northern California is experiencing a series of storms that have caused widespread flooding and displaced even more people," they say.

On Jan. 6, Orrick ordered the city to pause the scheduled encampment sweep. He said the plaintiffs “raised serious questions that the state will violate their constitutional rights by placing them in increased danger by being forced out of shelter during severe weather, in the midst of an ongoing ‘tripledemic’ and without adequate plans to provide shelter.” 

Three days later, Oakland announced staff would conduct in-person outreach to direct people on Wood Street to shelter options, including a cabin shelter program and safe RV parking. The city said it has an urgent reason to clear the site, as developers are set to remove hazardous soil from it and build 170 affordable homes there. 

Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons said the city heard from Wood Street residents that they want to self-manage their community. But, she added, “The longer we delay, the more this critical project to house vulnerable Oaklanders is put at risk.”

The city is finishing a cabin shelter on Wood Street to house about 100 people for six months, using an $8.3 million grant. It will offer bathroom and shower facilities, electricity, a community kitchen, limited storage for personal belongings and 24/7 security with parking and meals. Each cabin has windows, heating, light and electricity. 

Oakland will also open 29 of 125 RV parking spaces on 66th Avenue and Coliseum Way by Feb. 13, with hookups, toilets and showers and laundry facilities. 

Oakland’s supervising deputy city attorney Jamilah Jefferson told Orrick on Friday there are currently 30 cabins and 49 shelter beds open, and 36 of 69 people contacted by outreach workers accepted shelter. 

The plaintiffs’ attorney Brigitte Nicoletti called into the hearing from Wood Street. She said unhoused people are currently only told about “first come first serve” congregate shelter beds since the cabin and RV sites are not open. 

She also said the city has not provided a finalized agreement for entering those sites, and miscommunication about what is available and accessible creates confusion and a lack of trust for unhoused people. 

“If the city does this eviction without making an effort to reasonably accommodate them, they will be in great danger and great risk of harm,” Nicoletti said. “Many pieces need to fall into place before an individual is actually on site and in shelter, and those pieces haven't happened yet.”

Several Wood Street residents joined Nicoletti, telling Orrick of their “intense anxiety and fear” of being evicted. They said the residents have worked as a cooperative to provide each other with food, clothing and support while being displaced. 

Theo Cedar Jones said the city made the deal for affordable homes with developers without first talking to people who live on the public land. He said the landmark case charging cities to provide shelter to people sleeping on public land, Martin v. Boise, Idaho, is based on the Eighth Amendment but has not protected people in many cities from being displaced. 

“All of those shelter offers are beside the point, because they all support a fundamental violation, as I see it, of our Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty and property,” he said. “You cannot kick people off of their own public land.”

Jefferson promised that if Orrick dissolves the temporary restraining order, the city will not start evicting people until the RV site is open Feb. 13. She said cabins will open Monday, where finalized conduct agreements will be offered along with accessible cabins and bathrooms for people with disabilities. 

Orrick told the plaintiffs “There is no doubt that the community that you have built is one that is far preferable to you than anything that the city is going to be able to offer,” Orrick told the plaintiffs. But because the city has proved it will provide shelter options, “the balance is tipping toward the city, despite the hardship that it’s going to cause."

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