OAKLAND — Residents of the sprawling Wood Street homeless encampment will not be moved by Caltrans for at least a month after a federal judge ruled the state agency failed to do its part to determine the tenant relocation plans.
Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court in Northern California said he would extend a temporary restraining order against Caltrans and other government agencies until August 26, ordering the agency to work with officials in ‘Oakland, Alameda County and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to come up with a plan for where tenants could go once they’re forced out.
The judge’s order gives more time to about 200 homeless residents who have moved into the sprawling encampment, which sprawls a few blocks from the city of West Oakland on vacant land owned by Caltrans and BNSF Railway.
Residents say they have built a strong community of mutual support there and organized to resist past displacement efforts. But Caltrans officials stepped up efforts to clear the camps following a large, two-alarm fire on July 11 that sent flames high into the air and took more than 70 firefighters to extinguish.
It was the latest of nearly 200 fires to have broken out at the site in just two years, according to a lawyer for Caltrans, who insisted at a hearing on Friday that the fires are dangerously close to fuel tanks. utility gas, creating the potential for disaster. .
But Orrick said it was “disturbing” that Caltrans officials were only “beginning to think about what would happen” to the tenants if they were to leave.
“It won’t be enough, I think, for Caltrans to wash its hands of the eviction process and say, ‘Well, we’re not a housing agency,'” Orrick said. “Wood Street is on your property and you need to work collaboratively and helpfully with the city and county to ensure the proper services are provided and there is a place for these people.”
Newsom, who has been a strong advocate for cleaning up encampments and redirecting homeless residents to shelters, said in a statement that Orrick’s decision “would delay the critical work of Caltrans and put the public at risk.”
“Our roads and highways are no place to live, and this encampment endangers public health and safety,” Newsom said, noting that the state previously sent a $4.7 million grant to Oakland. specifically to relocate tenants from the Wood Street camp.
The money was part of the Governor’s Encampment Resolution Grant program. Daniel Cooper, Oakland’s new homelessness administrator, recently said the city hasn’t received the money yet, but he hopes to use the funds in the coming months to build a shelter on the site – potentially a collection of high-end tiny houses – for at least 100 people.
A handful of those residents had filed the temporary restraining order against Caltrans, saying they had lived at the site for years and protected each other along the way. Being forced to find shelter elsewhere, they said, could deprive them of job opportunities and possessions.
“We provide resources for each other, we take care of each other, we cook meals…we provide bedding, shelter, tents, clothing and conversation,” said resident John Janosko. of the camp currently hospitalized for a bacterial infection of the colon. in the Zoom audience.
Orrick told lawyers for Caltrans and other government agencies present that their plan must include a specific date when residents will actually have to leave. Without those concrete details, he said, residents would find themselves in a “state-created danger” to their health and well-being.
Orrick also rejected a request from Caltrans lawyer Stephen Silver to stop new tenants from moving into the camp, saying it was unreasonable: ‘I don’t know how you could stop people from coming in. or going out without doing something that might do things. worse.”
Although city officials have not been involved in Caltrans’ efforts to clean up the Wood Street site, they have attempted to entice tenants to leave in the past, even offering at some point to each person who left $2,500 in cash.
But longtime tenant Kelly Thompson, an army veteran, said there were few other places in town he could go without having to unload his belongings, including a trailer he kept parked. at the camp since 2017.
“It’s very difficult to pack up and move every couple of months and find somewhere safe enough,” Thompson said.
After a group of encampment residents thanked Orrick during the Zoom hearing for buying them more time, he made it clear that they “may not like me for long, because it’s not is not a long-term solution to the problem you have”.
“I want to make sure you know the end result, the end game in all of this is you’re going to have to move,” Orrick told the Tenants. “The question is how quickly that can happen.”
Writer Marisa Kendall contributed to this story.