Photo Attribution: NeoBatfreak, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
By Laurel Spear
OAKLAND, CA— A nearly year-long saga is coming to a close as the final residents are being evicted from the Wood Street homeless encampment.
On Wednesday, city crews stopped their attempts to clear the encampment due to a standoff against residents that resulted in the arrest of 2 people. Inhabitants used fencing and debris to create a barrier, stopping city staff and police from entering the community.
The Wood Street community is one of the largest homeless encampments in the country and has been growing for over a decade, now spanning 25 city blocks. At its height, before evictions began, the encampment was home to 200-300 occupants, but now only a few dozen people remain.
On Monday, crews began removing debris, illegally dumped materials, and inoperable vehicles from the premises. According to Public Works crew members, they have removed over 75 tons of debris, and the Department of Transportation has towed 14 inoperable vehicles from the property.
Many former residents have not only experienced the loss of housing, but the loss of the communal aspects of Wood Street. The encampment functioned similarly to a neighborhood with an elaborate maze of dwellings, RVs and vehicles, common areas, murals, and sculptures.
“What I discovered making this curbside community is that our culture is founded in recycling. I’ve found anything from Prada bags to building materials” explained Wood Street People’s Collective founder Mavin Carter Griffin.
The community included a health clinic, communal kitchen, free store, and gardens for residents. Many of the structures were made out of cob (a mix of straw, subsoil, and clay) which led to the encampment being nicknamed Cob on Wood.
“When you have everything taken away from you, sticks become Barbie dolls,” Carter Griffin explained. “Put a frame on the fence and it becomes a window. I’ve made a whole house without walls. I’ve gotten to know my community by sifting through the piles and reflecting on the lives of the people who owned these things. I see them as precious artifacts of lost Oakland.”
Although Cob on Wood has been the location of more than 100 fires over recent years, there are no fire hydrants located near the encampment. In order to reach fires on the premises, firemen have to stretch hoses hundreds of feet.
A week after a fire in April 2022 killed a resident, Caltrans first announced the closing of the encampment, but the evictions were held up for months due to litigation. As they began clearing inhabitants, Caltrans and city crews were met with protests and standoffs that led to two arrests in September.
Evictions began that September, with the goal of turning the property into 170 affordable housing units. As reported by the Assistant City Administrator, the development would create “permanent affordable housing development on the Wood Street parcel for up to 500 Oakland residents.”
According to city officials, Oakland is offering residents a range of resettlement options and will provide shelter for anyone from the encampment that wants it. In February, Oakland opened a cabin village to temporarily house occupants of Wood Street.
The cabin program is funded by an $8.3 million grant from the state, and provides job placement services, counseling, further housing navigation, and other services for residents. Although there are 100 spots available for Wood Street inhabitants, according to city officials only 31 people have enrolled in the program.
This Wednesday, advocates reported that residents were only allowed to bring one or two suitcases with them to the cabins, while the rest would be thrown away. They also said occupants are not given keys to their cabin or the village gate, which has deterred many from enrolling.
Because of lack of suitable shelter for Wood Street inhabitants, Oakland has seen displaced people move into neighboring areas. Oakland has one of the largest houseless populations in the country, and the area has felt the impacts of the closure of the Wood Street encampment.
In 2022, the houseless population surpassed 5,000 people, yet the city has less than 600 year-round shelter beds and 147 RV parking spaces, all of which are filled. This has caused many houseless people to come together and form communities, families, cultures, and traditions like the Cob on Wood community.
“There’s an alchemy to community, and it isn’t just in housing people. You’ve got to come together. Here, people who initially couldn’t stand each other are forming compounds, starting businesses, and planting gardens,” said Carter Griffin.
Laurel is currently a junior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science with an emphasis on International Relations. She is from Los Angeles and outside of school, she enjoys cooking, snowboarding, painting, and going to concerts.