San Francisco Chronicle
Wood Street not just an encampment
For eight years, I’ve called the Wood Street encampment in Oakland my home. From the outside, our tents, RVs and makeshift shelters may not look like much more than a collection of unhoused people occupying the same space. But for the approximately 300 people living in the Wood Street Commons settlement, as we prefer to call it, it is so much more. It’s our home, our neighborhood, and our community.
If the city and state have their way, we and everything we have worked so hard to build will soon cease to exist.
Wood Street has long been a refuge for the unhoused residents of Oakland. For years, when Oakland police and the Department of Public Works removed our encampments and evicted us from other parts of the city, they said we could go to Wood Street and be left alone. Over time, we eventually grew from a tiny section of street in the shadow of the MacArthur Maze to one of the largest encampments on the West Coast.
We’ve built communal infrastructure for power, water, bathing and cooking, along with a “free store” and facilities for health care and events. We regularly host dinner parties and performances. We garden and care for our pets, sharing our lives on Instagram so that the housed world can see that we are more alike than not. We shop together, pool the resources and try to repurpose what our housed neighbors throw away. We’ve created a model for how the unhoused can not just survive, but thrive, as we navigate the enormous challenges we face.
This summer, after a series of fires in our camp, Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over much of the land our community lives on, decided to demolish a large portion of it. Despite multiple requests from our community, the city did a minimal investigation into the cause of the fires. In September, Caltrans went ahead with its plan and bulldozed our handmade homes, impounded vehicles used for shelter and threw away our belongings.
About 200 of our residents were forcefully evicted from their homes — most of whom resettled nearby and remain active members of our community. As for the remaining 100 or so residents who live on city-owned land, Oakland says it plans to evict all of us on Monday.
Why would members of our community stick around even after authorities take such extreme measures to remove us? Because community is a priceless
Why would members of our community stick around even after authorities take such extreme measures to remove us? Because community is a priceless asset.
asset. As artists, activists, chefs, carpenters, teachers, students, and caretakers, we have different strengths and weaknesses, and we don’t always see eye-to-eye. But when the chips are down and one of us is in trouble, we band together to pull that individual up.
That bond between our members, rooted in this shared place we built together, is what we are fighting for.
Over the years, we’ve made every effort to cooperate with the city, but more often than not, that effort is not reciprocated. For example, when the city asked us to keep the streets clear of garbage, we organized with our wider neighborhood’s housed allies to collect garbage on a weekly basis. But when we asked the city to provide us with dumpsters, the city never did — despite a stated policy goal to do so. As a result, we end up stuffing the small garbage cans we have. But they are not enough to hold what we collect.
As city citizens, we, too, have basic rights. All we want is the freedom to maintain our homes and community without harassment, to be able to remain on the land we were told for years that we could be on, to not have everything we own snatched away, to not be shuffled around from one place to another under the threat of fear and intimidation, like we’re cattle.
Other than the evictions, 2022 has been a fantastic year for our community. We organized a bike ride to Sacramento to talk to state policymakers and raise awareness of our fight. We established a peer outreach program, called Homeless Helping the Homeless, spearheaded by John Janosko, a resident of the camp. We’ve organized countless events, from protests at City Hall and resource fairs at the camp to holiday parties and birthday celebrations for residents. Our events and celebrations are a mix of unhoused and housed folks — we aim to dissolve the artificial barriers between us. We are just as adamant about inclusivity and fun as we are in our demand that the city stop evicting us.
The planned eviction date coincides with the inauguration day of new Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, who was once homeless herself and ran a campaign professing to take a more compassionate approach to encampment management. Thao can make good on that promise by stopping our eviction as her first act in office.
Each day that passes is a day closer to the demolition of everything we’ve strived to achieve. But this outcome isn’t inevitable. Housed and unhoused residents of the Bay Area can come together and demand a truly compassionate approach to the housing crisis, starting with the preservation of Wood Street Commons.