OAKLAND — Threatening to withhold millions of dollars in public funding, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office took on Oakland officials this week, accusing the city of shirking its responsibility to clean up a large homeless camp from West Oakland, prone to fires.
In a letter to Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker, the governor’s office accused the city of washing its hands of the majority of residents of the Wood Street homeless encampment because they camp on land owned by Caltrans – not the city.
“We are writing today out of concern that the City of Oakland is seeking to avoid responsibility for providing shelter and housing assistance to people in the dangerous encampment commonly known as ‘Wood Street,’ despite the significant state funding that the city has received, and is receiving, to that end over the past two years,” wrote Ann Patterson, Newsom’s legal affairs secretary.
The dispute underscores growing tension over homelessness in California cities, as Newsom has made clearing settlements a priority. The state has allocated $300 million to Oakland and Alameda County to address homelessness since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including $4.7 million recently awarded to Oakland specifically to address homelessness. Wood Street camp.
In the letter, the governor’s office threatened to redirect that funding to other local governments that are “willing and able to serve Oakland residents in fulfillment of clear responsibilities set forth in state law.”
Several hundred people are estimated to be living in tents, makeshift shacks, cars and motorhomes along several blocks of Wood Street and adjoining vacant land owned by Caltrans. The camp has been a major point of contention for months, particularly after a fire last month sent clouds of black smoke through the area and shut down portions of the Interstate 80 and 880 overpasses. Twenty firefighters put out another blaze on Tuesday, which ignited an RV and debris surrounding the vehicle.
After the first fire, Caltrans said it planned to close the camps on its land – displacing around 200 people – by the first week of August. A group of camp residents quickly sued, and late last month a federal judge ruled that the transit agency could not close the camp until at least the end of August because it had not yet developed a plan to relocate the residents. Both sides are due to appear in court again next week to determine next steps.
In his order, U.S. District Judge William Orrick ordered Caltrans to work with officials in Oakland, Alameda County and Newsom’s office to determine where residents of the encampment can go. City spokeswoman Jean Walsh said Oakland is committed to those talks.
“The city’s discussions with Caltrans and the county have identified possible options to meet Caltrans’ accommodation needs,” Walsh said in an email. “All parties are working to identify the resources needed to support the accommodation of approximately 200 people on state land.”
But Patterson’s letter claims the city only recently “finally confirmed” an hour-long meeting with Caltrans attorneys to discuss the city’s role in the fight against the encampment.
The city resumed cleanup of the portion of the camp on Wood Street this week, but clarified that it does not have the authority to clean or manage camps on Caltrans land. City outreach teams engaged with more than a dozen people living on Wood Street – six accepted placements in shelters, four agreed to move to secure RV parking and three declined city offers.
City officials plan to use the $4.7 million state grant to build a 50-unit shelter on the site modeled after the tiny house or “cabin communities” that Oakland has erected in half a dozen other places in the city. He plans to add 50 more units later.
In the meantime, Caltrans said the agency will “continue to coordinate” with Oakland and the county.
“Caltrans’s responsibility is to ensure the safety of the traveling public and to protect and maintain California’s highway infrastructure,” spokeswoman Janis Mara wrote in an emailed statement. “The court’s temporary order will delay efforts to address the increasingly serious security risks to life, property and camp infrastructure, including the recent fire that caused the closure of the MacArthur Maze section” from the highway.
Newsom’s office asked the city to respond to his letter by Friday.
“Under state law, working with homeless people to identify housing or shelter alternatives is a local, not state, responsibility,” Patterson wrote. “As a result, our office expects the City to take action consistent with its responsibility, including providing temporary shelter to people in the Wood Street encampment. Failure to do so may result in the redirection of discretionary funding sources.