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Oakland homeless encampment resists city eviction efforts

Oakland officials clashed with unhoused people saying they need a guarantee of permanent housing.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — People still living at what was once one of the largest communities of unhoused people in California say they are resisting Oakland officials’ operation to clear encampments near Interstate 880. 

This week, the city began clearing about 60 people still living on a milelong stretch of Wood Street, which at one time had at least 300 residents after the city said in 2019 that they could move there. They built a community called Wood Street Commons, including gathering spaces, cooking and charging zones and food and clothing exchanges.

Residents have filed multiple lawsuits claiming Oakland has not offered enough shelter options to justify moving them from the site. U.S. District Judge William Orrick III cleared Caltrans to remove 200 people this past September, but twice blocked removal plans after a series of storms and delays in the city’s cabin shelters in January. 

City officials now say this week the Wood Street encampment must close, and will move residents along with their pets and belongings into shelters for about two weeks. The city has said it must close the site to begin constructing about 170 units of permanent affordable housing for up to 500 residents on the property. 

A police officer stands guard as people gather to pick up their belongings and comfort each other in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

“Every Oakland resident has a right to housing, safety, and dignity,” said LaTonda Simmons, Oakland’s assistant city administrator and acting homelessness administrator, in a statement. “That’s why our teams are working so hard to transition residents off the street and into shelter programs that enable them to eventually secure permanent housing.”

The city says about 100 people can now live in a $8.3 million cabin project and a safe RV parking site, prioritizing people who lived at Wood Street. The cabins have heating and electricity, limited storage, parking and offer two meals per day. The program offers residents help with permanent housing, job placement support and counseling. 

However, residents say they have no guarantee that if they leave Wood Street and go to shelters or tiny homes that they will get into permanent affordable housing anytime soon. If they do not go to shelters or find space for what they own, they could be subject to fines like anyone living unhoused on the city streets. 

The eviction comes as the Oakland City Council debates the eviction moratorium, which expires at the end of April, and possibly amending the "just cause eviction" ordinance. The Biden administration said this week that the federal Covid-19 emergency and associated protections are also ending a month earlier than expected. 

A group of advocates gathered in solidarity to protest an eviction operation and the arrest of a resident in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

On Wednesday, Wood Street residents — frustrated with police and city workers arriving to pick up and discard property at the site — erected a makeshift barrier between themselves and police officers, saying they want to “prevent the violent eviction of their community and demand the city negotiate with them.”

Multiple witnesses said that around noon, a resident named Jared deFigh laid in the street near garbage trucks and was soon arrested and taken into custody. A group of advocates gathered on the street in solidarity as police officers nearby watched. 

Other residents continued trying to gather their belongings.

Kerry Rogers works on fixing her bus, which is her home, in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)
Kerry Rogers works on fixing her bus, which is her home, in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Kerry Rogers, wounded by a gunshot, tried to jump the battery of the former school bus which she calls home. She said lawyers working with some residents assured her that the bus and her property will not be taken while she leaves the site to get medical aid for her wound. 

“I was in the hospital. They discharged me, and they want me back in two hours,” she said. “But it’s on hold, they can’t touch my stuff.”

Gesturing at the police officers watching nearby, Rogers said, “I don’t get it. We’re people too.”

Advocate Nick Goyhenetche, who has been working with and getting to know unhoused people in the community for two years, said residents want to be sure they will have a place to live when they leave the property. He said many people at Wood Street have jobs and still cannot find housing while others struggle with substance abuse.

“They need reprieve from being chased from place to place,” he said. 

“All we want is housing for these people, if we could just get something in writing — because that’s not getting offered right now. The bureaucratic maze that it takes to get housing is mind-boggling. I think it’s a chance for Oakland to step up and really be a model city and take care of these people, many of whom are Oakland residents.”

Asked to comment on the city’s response to residents resisting eviction, the city administrator's spokesperson Jean Walsh said more information should be available by Thursday. 

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