Unhoused people in Oakland built an eco-oasis during the pandemic – but may soon get evicted

·10-min read
The kitchen and community clinic at Cob on Wood, an eco-village built inside a massive homeless encampment in Oakland, where residents may soon be evicted. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)
The kitchen and community clinic at Cob on Wood, an eco-village built inside a massive homeless encampment in Oakland, where residents may soon be evicted. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)

Wood Street is where the Bay Area sends its unwanted. In a series of lots in an industrial corner of West Oakland, arsonists torch abandoned cars. Contractors dump old building materials and trash without permits near the train tracks. It’s where the city’s police, in the process of forcibly clearing out the more than 140 encampments of unhoused people that dot the region, tell people to go to be left alone, under the shadow of a raised highway bridge on Interstate 880.

Some 300 unhoused people live there at any given time, making it one of the largest homeless encampments on the West Coast, but calling it an encampment sells it short. It’s the size of a small village, spanning multiple city blocks, and it’s a proper community.

People know each other, hold meetings, help skilfully build elaborate dwellings from found materials that can include multiple stories, yards, and toolsheds. During the pandemic, when all the usual challenges of being unhoused were made even worse — poverty, deficient social services and health care, disproportionate mental health and addiction challenges, structural racism, byzantine city outreach infrastructure — the residents of Wood Street managed to do something even more impressive than spin a neighbourhood out of next to nothing.

Together with a dedicated group of local activists, they built a compound, a mini town square really, out of earthen buildings called Cob on Wood, with its own medical clinic, shower, kitchen, free store, garden, and even a pizza oven.

An aerial view of Cob on Wood. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)
An aerial view of Cob on Wood. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)

All of that could disappear with a little notice though. Much of the Wood Street encampment sits on state land, and authorities have been threatening eviction for months. People come to Wood Street when they’ve got nowhere left to go, but soon even this place may be taken away from them.

Ground was first broken for Cob on Wood last December.

Xochitl Bernadette Moreno, a local activist and radio host, had been working in Wood Street to provide nutritious foods and juices during the pandemic through her organisation Essential Food and Medicine. She and residents cleared out some of the burnt out cars and trash to host a “healing day” event, and they got to thinking about how to transform the space more permanently.

Soon they, along with an emergency tiny home building group called Artists Building Communities and a local earthen construction business called Living Earth Structures, began building Cob on Wood, using local clay and discarded materials like plastic bottles to construct a series of cob buildings, all while training residents on the ancient, sustainable, indigenous construction technique.

The buildings are a far cry from spartan homeless shelters, or the tool-shed like Tuff Sheds Oakland and others have deployed as emergency housing for those on the street.

The buildings are cheap to build, running to about $1,500 each, and perhaps more importantly, they have life. They’re all rounded and earthy, with the quaintness and warmth of a Hobbit house. And they’re meant to be enjoyed, rather than endured, advocates say.

“It’s autonomy. It’s so different for someone to be able to take a shower whenever they need to take a shower, not at some prescribed time, for a limited amount of time,” Ms Moreno told me. “Another piece is the self expression. They have life. They have creativity. Our community area that we’ve been able to grow and the common space that we’ve been able to develop is vibrant. People want to be there.”

A volunteer tends to someone at a first aid station at Cob on Wood. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)
A volunteer tends to someone at a first aid station at Cob on Wood. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)

Decisions about the space are made communally, and Sunday meetings between residents and organisers often feature freshly fired pizzas from the oven.

“The core of what we’ve got here is awesome. It’s what people need,” said Lydia, a woman who lives in her RV in the Wood Street encampment and asked to only use her first name to protect her privacy.

But many of the residents have been so busy battling against, or preparing for, their potential eviction that they haven’t always been able to devote as much time to the compound as they’d like. Lydia wants to do integrative health events at Cob on Wood’s clinic, but she rarely has the time since she’s so busy working with organisers to stall the eviction.

A before-and-after photo shows the site where unhoused people cleared a section of vacant land and turned it into a meeting place called Cob on Wood. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)
A before-and-after photo shows the site where unhoused people cleared a section of vacant land and turned it into a meeting place called Cob on Wood. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)

“We’re afraid perpetually,” Lydia said, adding, “I wish they would let us help each other. I wish they would let the community be a community. Stop trying to bulldoze us.”

Wood Street sits on a combination of land belonging to Caltrans, the state transit agency, the city of Oakland, and private landowners. The agency initially began drawing up plans to remove people from its parcels, citing trash and health and safety concerns. Then, according to residents and organisers, they were given a verbal commitment this spring they could stay if they cleared debris from the area.

After organising a massive cleanup, residents say Caltrans then sent them a cease-and-desist letter, telling them they weren’t qualified to interact with the hazardous debris many had already all but been forced to live among for years.

The Oakland police department, the Oakland city councilmember responsible for the area, and the mayor’s office official running specific policy towards homeless encampments did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.

Caltrans declined to answer specific questions about its dealings with Wood Street, but a spokesperson said the agency "has not scheduled closures to any part of the Wood Street encampment."

The agency also pointed to its support for a $1.2 million safe RV park planned for part of the Wood Street site, though that project would only house 50 people, far below the total number living unhoused in the area.

The cease-and-desist felt like a slap in the face to the people who lived at Wood Street.

“We’re on Caltrans land because we have nowhere to go,” Lydia said. “What do you want us to do?”

LaMonte, a brawny man with deeply calloused hands and a soft voice, is one of the many, disproportionately Black Oaklanders who has become unhoused in recent years as the region’s tech boom jacked up rents in a housing market already deeply strained by decades of under-investment and discriminatory housing practices.

He said the city was “flabbergasted” with the arrival of Silicon Valley money, and emphasised just how much work he has put in to carve out a living space at Wood Street, as we sat on a reclaimed couch from a Jack In The Box fast food restaurant, on a patio just around the corner from the house he built himself and his girlfriend, which has multiple rooms and a wood stove.

“Police sent us down here, literally,” he said. “We were on city blocks everywhere throughout Oakland. The officers would harass and tell us to move down here. They said we would find a sanctum here. We came and started to build, and now they’re trying to push us again.”

Since then, rumours will periodically circulate about a planned eviction date, but so far they’ve been spared. Officials did not return a request for comment about an eviction.

Pretty much everyone in the city agrees there’s a dire housing and homelessness crisis in Oakland that’s been building for decades, from longtime local activists to city officials.

“Driving through my community every single day, I remember the East Oakland from when I grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s,” said Candice Elder, of the East Oakland Collective, a group that has various housing, economic development, and food aid programmes in the area. “It was on the decline then, and seeing it now, there has been no change.”

She said Oakland often exceeds its targets for luxury development, while falling way short on building truly affordable housing.

“Prior to the pandemic, Oakland was experiencing a severe housing shortage. That was driving up rents,” said Peter Radu, the homeless policy director for the Oakland mayor’s office.

The city got more than $40 million in emergency state and federal funds to tackle homelessness during the pandemic, which Mr Radu said helped double shelter capacity and provide for other services. Even then, however, the city is still outmatched, and the funding may dry up with the coronavirus on the wane.

“It’s still not enough to enough to outpace the rate at which people are falling into homelessness every day in our city,” he said.

Between 2017 and 2019, there was almost a 50 per cent increase in homelessness in Oakland, and on any given day, somewhere near 10,000 people experience being unhoused in the city, the overwhelming number of them being Black people. In April the city’s auditor office found that when it came to regulating encampments, Oakland “was not adequately prepared to shoulder such a massive project” and “overwhelmed by the undertaking of closing and cleaning encampments throughout Oakland.” Despite passing a formal encampment management policy last fall, the city “lacked an effective strategy for dealing with the growth in encampments and did not provide sufficient policy direction or adequate funding at the onset of this crisis,” the report concluded.

But diagnosing the problem is the easy part. Fixing it is much harder, and there’s often a deep, almost existential divide between how some unhoused people themselves see solutions and the city officials tasked with providing them. Many on the street believe encampments are a necessary feature of life until the broader social system and economy improves enough to give people what they need. The city of Oakland, meanwhile, believes such encampments are unacceptable signs of social failure that greatly threaten the health and safety of those who live inside them, so the emphasis should be on getting people out of them as soon as practicable.

To that end, the city and the broader Alameda County have deployed numerous different resources in recognition of the growing crisis. They built tiny home Tuff Shed villages, expanded shelter capacity, bought entire hotels during the pandemic, and opened safe RV parking sites, including one in development at Wood Street.

“The mayor really does not believe unsheltered homeless is acceptable. This is the wealthiest region in the wealthiest nation in the history of human civilisation,” Mr Radu said. “We must do better as a society than that.”

The city’s recently passed encampment management policy prioritises cleaning or shutting down encampments that present the greatest health and safety risk, but residents of these encampments often argue that clearing the encampments is just as risky, since it displaces them even further.

More than that though, clearing out homeless encampments means wiping away people’s homes and the communities they’ve formed there when their own communities have failed them. It’s not that everything there is perfect; far from it.

“There’s a lot of pain, a lot of anguish, a lot of turmoil in between the happiness that we’ve found here,” Monte said.

But the residents and activists of Cob on Wood and Wood Street more broadly are raising money, hoping to get enough funds to do that anyway, and buy the land officials are threatening to evict them from and turn it into a community land trust, where the city allows them to use for low rates. In 2019, a group of Black, unhoused mothers occupied a house in Oakland and garnered worldwide attention, and the property was eventually sold to a land trust and turned into transitional housing.

The pandemic, and the flood of aid it unlocked, showed what was possible when the government commits to massive social aid. Now, though, the political momentum for such projects is flagging. Not if Wood Street can help it though.

Protesters gather outside of Caltrans’s regional office in Oakland in June, 2021, to protest the potential evictions at the Wood Street homeless encampment. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)
Protesters gather outside of Caltrans’s regional office in Oakland in June, 2021, to protest the potential evictions at the Wood Street homeless encampment. (Courtesy of Cob on Wood)

The people there have been linking up with other unhoused communities statewide, have protested outside Caltrans’s regional office in Oakland, and have pressed the governor’s office to establish community oversight councils handling homelessness policy whose representatives are at least 50 per cent on behalf of the unhoused community. It’s part of a growing recognition that their circumstances are as common as they are untenable across the state.

“Let us get this land in a land trust,” John Janosko, another Wood Street resident, said. “Give us two years to show them, the city, Caltrans and whoever else what we can do.”

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