Judge Prevents Caltrans From Clearing Oakland Homeless Encampment

The state has provided $4.7 million in grants to the city of Oakland specifically to help house people at the Wood Street encampment, according to the governor's office.

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A federal judge on Friday refused to let Caltrans "wash their hands" of people living in a homeless encampment on Wood Street in Oakland by clearing them from it.

It is unclear though to the camp residents whether the city of Oakland or BNSF Railway Company will be clearing the parts of the camp that they own. The camp is on land owned by all three and possibly land owned by individuals.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick upheld a temporary restraining order preventing the state's transportation agency from clearing its part of the encampment.

"I'm feeling pretty much every feeling in the book right now," said Jaz Colibri, a resident of the camp.

That's because, she said, the ruling is pretty unprecedented.

Early in the hearing, Orrick was critical of Caltrans, Oakland, and Alameda County. Attorneys for the three entities had few answers for the judge's questions. Orrick said Caltrans officials told him the agency is not in the housing business. Oakland and the county are working with Caltrans to provide housing for the homeless residents.

"Everybody wants to wash their hands" of this particular problem, Orrick alleged. "And that's not going to happen."

Caltrans attorney Stephen Silver said his agency is concerned about safety following an encampment fire July 11 that got close to oxygen tanks owned by the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

The fire got 215 feet from the EBMUD plant and may have impacted it if the wind was blowing toward the plant that day.

"This is simply a potential catastrophe," Silver said.

But Orrick said the potential catastrophe has been there for six years, implying Caltrans has done nothing to mitigate it in that time.

Silver also showed the judge a freeway support structure that was damaged by an encampment fire, but Orrick said that the fire was three years ago.

Orrick said Caltrans has made no progress to house the encampment residents, calling that a state-created problem, too.

Brigitte Nicoletti, an attorney representing the camp residents, said there is nothing in the restraining order that prevents Caltrans from abating fires. She told the judge that residents have said Caltrans has increased the fire danger at the camp.

Nicoletti also said there is no evidence camp residents were involved in the fires.

Oakland fire officials said about 100 fires of various sizes and severity have occurred at the camp between April 2021 and July 1 of this year. One person died in a fire in April.

But Nicoletti said the risks Caltrans faces can be mitigated while the risks to the people living at the camp cannot, at least not immediately, if Caltrans cleared the camp.

"Housing is a human right," Colibri said.

She said she is "feeling hopeful."

But Colibri is still worried about what proposals those that want to help the residents will make. She wants the residents to provide input and participate in those proposals.

Colibri said those closest to the problem know the best solutions.

Beyond the abandoned cars and piles of debris. The center of the Oakland homeless encampment on Wood Street is filled with gardens and community. The makeshift neighborhood is what more than 200 people living there are fighting to keep.

Oakland city officials said while they don’t have the room to shelter everyone, they are looking for solutions.

“One of the areas we are exploring is the Oakland Army Base. It’s one of the few places that the city owns property,” said Oakland Councilmember Noel Gallo.

As agencies search for answers, Wood Street residents hope they are part of the conversation.

“Let’s just sit down and figure this out. Where don’t have to go into anything where we are hurting other people,” said Wood Street resident Ben Murawski.

Officials with BNSF Railway did not immediately respond to a request for information on their plans for the homeless residents on BNSF property.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped short of disagreeing with Orrick, but said the judge's decision will "delay Caltrans' critical work and endanger the public."

The state has provided $4.7 million in grants to the city of Oakland specifically to help house people at the Wood Street encampment, according to the governor's office.

NBC Bay Area reached out to Caltrans for comment, but did not hear back.

The City of Oakland released the following statement Friday afternoon:

"While the City does not have jurisdictional authority to clear or manage encampments on land owned by other agencies, including Caltrans, our interest is in seeing that people affected by closures are housed and supported by services. Unfortunately the City of Oakland does not have capacity to shelter all Wood Street residents. We will continue to support Caltrans in their collaboration with Alameda County to identify additional outreach and shelter resources to address the larger population living on their property. The City appreciates and agrees with the Court that Wood Street must close for the health and safety of all residents."

Bay City News contributed to the report.

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