What happens next for Wood Street residents after city sweeps encampment?
on May 9, 2023
The Wood Street homeless encampment closed last week, forcing many who lived there into city-run shelters. But more permanent housing solutions are a long way off, including the development planned for the 3-acre lot where the encampment has sat for years.
Thursday marked the end of the month-long sweep of the encampment near 18th Street, one of the city’s largest, where people had been living in tents, trailers and recreational vehicles. The city said about 70 people were living at the encampment when the sweep started. Others had already moved on, knowing the sweep was coming.
The city cleared the encampment to make room for a permanent affordable housing development on the site, a 170-unit structure that can house up to 500 people, some renters and some owners. The city said it could not begin working on the development until the site was “closed and secured.”
Wood Street resident Jonathan Knowell secured a spot at a temporary shelter but had to give up a lot of his belongings to move in. During the encampment closure, city workers threw away his dirt bike, among other items.
“They just came in and grabbed it, and I guess it was in the way,” he said.
The city has worked to relocate Wood Street residents to city shelter programs, including the Wood Street Cabin and the Safe RV Parking programs, funded by an $8.3 million grant from the state. Small cabins were set up adjacent to the encampment site, while the lot for RVs is over 7 miles south of the encampment, near the Oakland Arena. The cabins are miniature units for residents to stay in for up to six months. They include mini refrigerators, electrical outlets, limited storage space, laundry facilities and flush toilets. Residents are welcome to bring up to two pets. The cabin program offers help in accessing permanent housing, job placement and counseling. The RV program offers electrical hookups, bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities as well as 24-hour staff trained in mental health support on site.
“The sites are designed to be extremely low barrier, with minimal rules,” the city said in a February news release.
The transition of unhoused residents to temporary shelters took place over the course of a few weeks, as city workers simultaneously cleared the encampment of trash, debris, makeshift dwellings and people’s belongings. By last Thursday, 57 of the estimated 70 individuals remaining had accepted city shelter services, including cabins and safe RV spots.
The Wood Street cabins are operated and managed by the nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, to which the city paid $4.5 million for the setup. The cabins can house around 100 people and include a community space.
Jean Walsh, the city spokesperson, confirmed in April that the cabins were finished but still missing some of the promised amenities such as a community kitchen.
Some of those being forced out of Wood Street are not as interested in housing options as they are in living in a supportive community. Jared DeFigh fought the sweep because he didn’t want to leave the friends he’s made since he set up a tent on Wood Street eight months ago. Now that the encampment is dismantled, he’s worried about what may happen, not so much to him but to his friends and to his kitten, Sunshine.
DeFigh, 38, grew up in Concord, a 30-minute drive from where he is now homeless. Last August, DeFigh landed at Wood Street. He became acquainted with resident John Janosko, who showed him where he could set up a tent and introduced DeFigh to other community members. The friends DeFigh has made at Wood Street are as close as family. They fix each other’s vehicles and protect each other’s belongings during severe weather.
In late March, before the city started to close the encampment, DeFigh sat on a couch in a shared space with chairs, tables and a fire pit for communal cooking. Donated food, clothes and water were placed on a table for residents to pick up. DeFigh gestured to the patio area, then pointed in the direction of the Wood Street cabins, a few blocks north of the encampment’s shared space, saying, “You can either go here with your family, where you’ll have basic necessities, or you can go here and be completely alone and have twice that. Which would you prefer?”
DeFigh said he had lived at another one of Oakland’s community cabin sites, on Mandela Parkway, and that his roommate physically attacked him in the middle of the night. He worries that moving to the community cabins or another temporary shelter will mean more violent encounters with unstable roommates.
The question of moving residents like DeFigh into temporary or permanent housing still lingers. City audits of Oakland’s homelessness services show the city lacks a strong track record of moving unhoused people into long-term housing.
From 2018-2021, the city failed to meet targets for getting people — mostly single adults — into permanent housing or exiting homelessness. Among other things, the audit noted the city did not have a way of tracking people who were getting off the streets or where they were ending up. Auditors also found that the city had mixed results in helping people get into permanent housing. They noted that the city could do more to get people enrolled in public assistance programs such as food or disability benefits, which have “proven to be the first step” toward housing security.
In the meantime, the city is focusing its efforts on the permanent housing structure that will sit on the land that Wood Street residents had to clear off of.
Developers soon will begin soil testing and environmental surveying to break ground for the permanent housing plan. MidPen Housing Corp. and Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley are joint developers of the project, which is expected to take more than five years. Construction could start in 2025 and be completed around 2028.
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