The Nation, 08/17/22
“Housing is a human right!
OAKLAND, CA 07/26/22 – Seven years ago, people began setting up what has become Oakland’s largest and oldest encampment under a maze of freeway near a rail yard, as the city’s housing crisis grew more severe. Some people drove motorhomes and trailers into the huge space next to an old railway trestle, used decades ago to move boxcars between the port and the military base and train station in main yard. Other housing seekers set up tents or even more informal accommodation. One enterprising individual even built a room under the trestles twenty feet off the ground. In a camp resident environment compared to the Wild West, it provided security and some peace at night.
The camp borders Oakland’s old Wood Street, which was cleared to build the highway maze leading to the Bay Bridge. In one small section, residents and supporters erected several small houses and a common space for meetings, entertainment and other collective activities. The structures are made of cob – a mixture of straw, clay and sand – so they called it Cob on Wood.
Fires in the camp began to increase a year ago – more than 90 last year. The worst broke out two weeks ago, on July 11. Propane cylinders used for cooking and heating exploded in a fire so hot that vehicles parked under or near the trestle were incinerated. The residents fled. This time no one died, but last April a man lost his life in a small fire, when his converted bus filled with smoke and he was unable to get out.
Firefighters responded to these fires, but there is no fire hydrant near Cob on Wood. To reach the informal houses, they have to stretch pipes for hundreds of feet. A city audit in April 2021 documented 988 fires at 140 encampments over the previous two years. Fires in homeless camps accounted for 12.5% of all Oakland fires requiring firefighter response and claimed the lives of two people during that time.
A week after the last major fire in Cob on Wood, CalTrans announced it would close the area and evict residents. The day after the announcement, however, homeless people signed individual legal complaints and their attorneys convinced Superior Court Judge William Orrick to issue a temporary restraining order barring CalTrans’s planned action. While the injunction was still temporary, residents feared the eviction would happen anyway and called on supporters to testify. The day after the judge’s order, a Highway Patrol SUV showed up, escorting a group of workers and heavy equipment. After standing for an hour, they left, perhaps in compliance with the TRO or perhaps to evade intrusive photographers and witnesses.
Two days later, Orrick extended his order, saying replacement homes had to be found for residents before they could be moved. “I understand that everyone wants to wash their hands of this particular problem, and that’s not going to happen,” he told authorities during a Zoom hearing. When asked to detail their plans for providing replacement accommodation, none could provide any. Residents say, however, that CalTrans and the railroad have been slowly cleaning up areas under the freeway and near train tracks for weeks. Last week, Oakland City Police attacked and then arrested a camp resident when he resisted efforts to evict people from the part of the area that is municipal land. In this real estate chessboard some pieces belong to Oakland, others to CalTrans and others to the BNSF Railroad. Residents have no way of knowing which land belongs to whom.
Last May, the state gave Oakland a $4.7 million grant to house 50 of the more than 200 people who live in Cob on Wood, but the city has not used it to create housing. Nonetheless, Governor Gavin Newsom criticized the judge’s decision, unhappy with any delay in the residents’ move. “This encampment endangers public health and safety,” he said in a press release.
More than 5,000 homeless people live in Oakland, but the city has only 598 year-round shelter beds, 313 housing structures, and 147 RV parking spaces. All are filled. UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha visited Oakland in 2018 and told journalist Darwin Bondgraham: “I find there is real cruelty in the way people are being treated here. ‘, comparing Oakland’s treatment to what she’s seen in Manila, Jakarta and Mexico City. In these cities, she observed, homelessness is basically tolerated, while in the much wealthier United States, being homeless is criminalized.
“These are communities,” Cob on Wood resident John Janosko told Oaklandside reporter Natalie Orenstein after the July 22 hearing. “People stay in these places because they feel safe there.” Nevertheless, the judge made it clear that the respite was temporary and that the residents of the encampment would eventually have to leave. Where is still the big question, however.