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Salvador pulls back his tarp in order to show that he removed all wood from his home.

Officials cite fire hazards in demolition of East Oakland homeless encampment

on September 16, 2019

Early Wednesday morning, city police, BART police and employees from Oakland’s Department of Public Works demolished 21 pallet homes from the curbside homeless encampment on San Leandro Avenue in East Oakland, citing fire hazards.

The camp, located under the BART tracks near the Coliseum station, was bisected by a barbed fence and railroad tracks. It was home to 30 people, including one mother and her new baby. For three years, the residents had alternated between living alongside the railroad tracks or on the sidewalk. Before the demolition, they had been living along the sidewalk for a year, knitted together in a community of small, rectangular homes made out pallet wood, barbed wire and tarp. They shared two Porta Potties and a plastic sink. 

The thing that made this camp special, advocates said, was the level of security it offered. Most of the homes had doors that locked. Osovale, a resident who asked to be identified only by her first name, said she knew their situation wasn’t ideal—she was scared of cars careening off San Leandro—but she said she felt more secure there than she would somewhere else. She knew, for example, that the Pick and Pull gas station attendants next door were kind. “We look out for each other,” she said.

A pallet home before the demolition.

But according to the city’s fire marshal, the camp presented a number of fire risks. For one thing, the camp’s primary building material—pallet wood—is highly flammable, and burns hotter and longer than tents do. Close to this flammable material, residents were cooking with propane and tapping electricity from nearby streetlights. “It’s just too dangerous. Someone’s going to get electrocuted,” said Joe DeVries, the assistant to the city administrator, who is in charge of homelessness-related issues in Oakland. Last fall, fires broke out several times in another East Oakland camp called The Village, destroying people’s tents and belongings. It was demolished earlier this year after the city’s lease on the land, which belongs to the California Department of Transportation, expired.

The residents had known a demolition was coming for about six weeks. Department of Public Works staffers had posted “notice of removal” signs on August 6 informing residents that the process would begin on August 26. However, The East Oakland Collective, a grassroots organization that assists the local homeless population, was able delay the process by two weeks through a series of strenuous negotiations with DeVries. In this time, the collective was able to fundraise enough money to buy each family group a temporary tent to serve as a backup shelter once their pallet home was demolished.

Employees from the Department of Public Works bulldozing homes.
Osovale outside her shelter the night before the demolition.
Police offers giving residents 15 minutes to pack, before bringing in the machinery.

The night before the scheduled demolition, Osovale said the encampment felt quiet. Scrubbing a pan outside her shelter, she looked down the quarter mile stretch and saw no one from her community out packing. She said that most people in the encampment had immigrated here from Central America. “I don’t think everyone knows what’s going on tomorrow,” she said. “I’m worried about them. I don’t know where they’re going to go.”

Osovale’s neighbor, a man named Salvador, was under the impression that if he cleared the wood from his structure, the city would spare it. He lifted up his tarp roof and pointed through his barbed wire walls. “See, no wood,” he said, mistaking a reporter for a city official. Inside, a speaker blasted Bruno Mars.

On Wednesday morning around 8 a.m., employees from the Department of Public Works were the first to arrive, and they began by taking photos of the structures. “They do it so they can catch people trespassing, and throw them in jail,” said mayoral candidate Derrick Soo, a formerly homeless person lending support to the advocates.  

Next, OPD and BART Police methodically sectioned the camp into zones with yellow caution tape. They knocked on each door and gave the residents 15 minutes to pack and make way for bulldozers to heave their homes into a truck. For the first few hours, advocates from the East Oakland Collective and the Homeless Advocacy Working Group had to wait the outside the yellow tape, unable to assist. Despite the barriers, they were able to pass garbage bags underneath the tape to give residents a way to store their belongings.

“It was so painful, to watch people’s homes being taken away before their eyes,” said Tayla Husband-Hankins of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group.

Candice Elder, from the East Oakland Collective, said she believes that the whole demolition process was unnecessary. She argued that city officials had many opportunities to mitigate and improve the living environment before “jumping to the extreme.” Why not offer a safe, public piece of land for the residents to move to, she asked, or if they were worried about the risk of fire, why not bring in fire extinguishers and smoke alarms? Elder said that, at the very last minute, she had actually managed to secure the help of pro bono architects who were willing to bring the homes up to code.

“What she wanted was impossible,” DeVries said. “You just couldn’t build one of these structures to code under a BART track.”

And in regards to moving the residents to another piece of land, DeVries said, “you would have to submit building plans to the state, to ensure the cabin is built up to code and is part of a program that is managed properly under the city’s liability.” He referred to the city’s own community cabin sites, where people can temporarily stay in a Tuff Shed while searching for longer-term housing. “In our sites, we have 24-hour security, absolutely no fires allowed, absolutely no propane, absolutely no electrical taps,” he said.

According to DeVries, the city is open to collaborating with the East Oakland Collective to create safe, temporary living spaces for the homeless in the future. But, he said, in this case, the fire risk at the San Leandro encampment was just too high to go through the necessary procedures.

The demolition ran until 10:30 p.m. Husband-Hankins was constantly moving between the camp and the city officials in an effort to provide emotional support to the residents and to mediate between the OPD, BART police and the people living in the camp. “In the 40 homeless evictions I’ve witnessed this year, this stood out as particularly cruel,” she said. It was the first time she’d witnessed the destruction of more permanent dwellings, rather than tents. She said it was also unusual to see city officials make no attempt to provide residents with any type of alternative housing—whether beds at a shelter, tents or tiny cabins.

“What the city of Oakland is doing today is demolishing everything and leaving people to fend for themselves. It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Husband-Hankins said.

The residents, she said, “were cold, they were tired and they were clearly traumatized by whole situation.”

Throughout the seven hours it took to demolish the camp, community organizers brought snacks, water, soda and pizza to give out to those being evicted. Nearby residents of other encampments in Oakland came to give support. They spoke with San Leandro camp residents as they were being evicted, and they provided hot coffee.

Osovale said that the support from advocates meant everything to her. “Before I met Candice,” she said, “I thought we were fighting this thing alone.”

Husband-Hankins felt similarly. “Something beautiful to come out of the day was the outpouring of community support from start to finish,” she said.

As one last act of community support, as the demolition wound down, members of the group that had supported The Village encampment attempted to build raised platforms on which the evicted San Leandro camp residents could set up their new tents. But the heavy machinery and debris surrounding the sidewalk made it so they couldn’t start building these platforms until 2:00 a.m.

Nevertheless, Village members reported, by Thursday morning, most platforms were successfully installed, and residents were able to set up their tents.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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