OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — A judge gave Caltrans, the City of Oakland, and Alameda County a green light to raze one of Oakland’s largest homeless encampments to prevent a potential “catastrophic explosion” if another fire ignites.
U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick approved the city’s proposal to begin clearing out the Wood Street encampment, starting on Labor Day. Unsheltered men and women will be forced out of the area in three phases stretching over six weeks. The first phase will target the north end of the encampment.
During Friday’s hearing, attorneys and spokespersons from the city, council, and Caltrans admitted that no one has taken a census of Wood Street to find out how many people actually live there. Some of Wood Street’s unsheltered residents attended the hearing and said their tight-knit community is comprised of hundreds of residents.
Judge Orrick admitted that the city’s plan was, “not perfect. But it is a thoughtful proposal based on the resources that the city has. This is not a solution, in any normal sense. But it will address the problems that have been raised, in a legal way.”
Several fires ignited within the sprawling Wood Street encampment over the summer. Caltrans attorney Mark Guenzi said crews urgently need to reduce sources of ignition and fuel “expeditiously.” Guenzi noted that one fire burned just 200 feet from oxygen tanks, and another fire raged 130 feet from an electrical facility.
The encampment is a maze of Recreational Vehicles, broken down cars, tents, and other possessions stretching for miles along Interstate-880 and I-580. Caltrans’ attorney said these materials are all “fuel” for more dangerous fires.
The encampment on Caltrans property has been the site of more than 240 fires, including a dozen this August.
Men and women who live on Wood Street pleaded with the judge to allow their community to stay-put until better housing shelter solutions are available. A 60-year-old woman said, “My entire life has been trying to make sense of things and find a place that I fit in this world. It’s the reason why I am here.”
Judge Orrick didn’t budge.
“The idea that this has been rushed does not take into account the fact that Caltrans filed its notices back on July 15. I don’t have the authority, because there is no constitutional right to housing, to allow Wood Street (unsheltered residents) to remain on property. I recognize that you have a community. They (city, county, and Caltrans officials) don’t want to house human beings where there have been so many fires. It’s a significant public health concern for everybody,” the judge told Wood Street residents.
The judge declined Caltrans’ request to begin clearing out the encampment on Monday, August 29. Instead, Orrick said unsheltered residents deserved to have one more week to move their possessions.
The most controversial issue debated during Friday’s hearing was over Recreational Vehicles. City and county attorneys said they currently have zero “safe space parking spaces” available for RVs.
A man who lives in the encampment and attended the hearing said, when the city’s plan is carried out on Labor Day, “it’s going to be a s**t show.”
The man said, “They have taken a lot of our vehicles already … (falsely) identified as abandoned. There is no such thing as an abandoned vehicle out there. These vehicles are their shelter. This proposal does not remove the problem, it just scatters the problem.”
He added that the city’s failure to provide any trash and sanitation services created the Wood Street “disaster.” He said, “Fuel load? Amen. Let’s reduce the fuel load. I would love to see anybody from the city and county to bring out even one bag of trash.”
The judge told the city, county, and Caltrans that they need to ensure unsheltered residents’ RVs and other vehicles are not “lost” when the camp is cleared out. “These are vehicles of human beings, and they are not to be lost,” Judge Orrick said.
Caltrans attorney Mark Guenzi said, “It’s going to be difficult. RV’s could have hazardous materials inside. Many of these vehicles that are being inhabited, are very damaged, and not able to be moved.”
Judge Orrick said, “Mr. Guenzi you are the one who is trying to evict people from your property. You have the right to do that. They have the right to maintain their property. I want to make sure the people who own that property don’t lose that property. I don’t have a solution. The three of you (city, county, Caltrans representatives) need to work that out.”
The City of Oakland released a statement Friday afternoon stating that the judge’s green light, “will clear the way for Caltrans to address the potentially catastrophic hazards posed by the sprawling Wood Street encampment due to the massive accumulation of combustible materials, burned out cars, and debris. (Fires) threaten the integrity of the regional freeway network above and pose a significant danger to East Bay MUD’s wastewater treatment plant next door.”
Temporary Restraining Order on Caltrans property: GRANTED
On July 19, homeless men and women at the Wood Street encampment filed for a temporary restraining order (TRO) in U.S. District Court against Caltrans, Alameda County, and Oakland to prevent a planned closure of the encampment and removal of the plaintiffs and their possessions. The TRO was granted until a hearing could be held.
After a hearing on July 22, the court modified the TRO and clarified that the TRO applies only to Caltrans land and does not extend to Oakland’s property. It states that, “As used in this TRO, ‘Wood Street encampment’ refers only to the area possessed by Caltrans, not the City of Oakland or other entities.”
Temporary Restraining Order on City of Oakland Property: DENIED
On August 11, the same group of plaintiffs asked the court to expand the modified TRO to apply to city property and stop the city’s efforts to resume its clean-up operation that began last month. The court denied the request on August 12 allowing the City’s operation to resume as planned on August 15 through August 18.
Modified Temporary Restraining Order on Caltrans Property: TO BE DISSOLVED
On August 26, the court indicated it plans to dissolve the Modified TRO in three staged phases; the order is forthcoming.