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What is happening with the encampment sweeps under Oakland's Interstate 880?

The encampment on Wood Street, Oakland
Jasmine Ramirez
Jasmine Ramirez
The encampment on Wood Street, Oakland

Whether it be from the simple high cost of living to a medical disability that leaves you out of work, owning a home has become a hard-to-reach dream for a lot of people.

“One of my jobs. I fell off the roof and broke my back.
I failed to pay the rent and the people that were supposed to help me doesn't help me. And that's the sad history. “

This is Tommy. Along with him are many other Oaklanders who have created a home in secluded areas like near freeways.

”And have you ever thought about staying in a shelter?
“Ummm I'm not on the streets, well, I am on the streets, But I have one, two trailers.”

He lives in an RV with his girlfriend. Two of his friends live in the RV parked next door. Together they have formed a community right across the 880 overpasses in West Oakland.

“I got some good neighbors, two guys who are here. I've been here in West Oakland for like 30-something years”.

The city took a couple of steps to reduce the high number of people seeking shelter outside. One was the creation of the Homeless Encampment Management Team or EMT. The EMT is made up of different, if not all, departments within the city. The EMT's job is to, well, manage encampments.

They do this by providing clean-ups, porta-potties, and outreach services. If an encampment begins to grow too large, or there is some sort of health or safety hazard, the EMT will step in.

Another step was to shelter 29 percent of the homeless population with the Project Room key. The City of Oakland is continuously looking to buy more hotels, but some residents usually aren't too fond of the idea for their neighborhoods.

So, what about the 71 percent that are left unsheltered?

I went back to the encampment on Wood Street after a fire broke out in early April this year. And I met Lydia just as Caltrans employees were sweeping her stuff.

“They just tore down this fence. They decided that the property line was further in. They tore up my compound last week. Stole almost everything I had.”

“Up until this morning, there was a fence right here, and everybody's understanding was that that side was Caltrans. And this side was city property. ”

JR6: Back in 2016, Caltrans settled a lawsuit for illegally throwing away people's belongings. Some terms of the settlement included giving a 72-hour notice prior to a sweep. Additionally, Caltrans was required to tag and store away any personal belongings that may have been left unattended. They also have to provide a phone number, which people can call to retrieve their belongings.

“They told the bulldozer guy to crush all of my stuff that's on the other side of the fence.”

But that might not always be the case.

“I just talked to the debris box operator, he said, yes, straight to the dump.”

Lydia said she did receive a 48-hour notice, but couldn't get all her stuff out on time. She had built a home using the 880 ramps for shelter.

“I'm here because I don't have anywhere else to go. Same with everybody else. We've been pushed out of everywhere like so many times.”

Caltrans has jurisdiction over the state's highways and exit ramps. And because the land around freeway ramps seem somewhat empty, homeless encampments tend to gravitate towards those areas.

Has the city offered you any other resources?
Do you think I'd still be here complaining and crying and like trying to get them to not crush my stuff? Like my stuff would be in housing”

It turns out there are not a lot of options. Most shelters have a long waiting list or work by referrals. And referrals usually require meeting certain criteria.

“And this violates the encampment management policy saying that people need to be offered services”

The Homeless Encampment Policy was drawn up in 2020. It specified where encampments can and cannot be. This included how large they can get. High-sensitive areas are where encampments are not allowed. This includes parks with playgrounds, or in the way of residences and businesses. If the closure of an encampment is needed, residents must be offered alternative housing.

So where do people go when there isn't anywhere to go?

“I mean, one time they cleared out they took all my property and so that was it for me, I came and moved on city property. One loss was enough”

This is Ryce, he used to live right under highway 880. But after Caltrans swept all his belongings a couple of years ago, he decided to move across the lot away from Caltrans jurisdiction.

“All my family pictures, all my family stuff, was just whipped out. They took it and bulldozed it. Material stuff could always be replaced, but the memories can't be, so it was tragic in that sense”

I reached out to Caltrans trying to get answers to some questions. Questions regarding their property line, protocols for storing people's belongings, things like that. After a couple of attempts, I got back a statement saying Caltrans will continue to work with social service providers who can connect people with shelter options and services.

And in mid-April Governor Gavin Newsom took his own tour of the encampment on Wood Street to evaluate the living conditions.

He stated that theCalifornia Blue Print added a two-billion-dollar investment in behavioral health housing and encampment rehousing strategies. Investments will go towards transforming Medi-Cal to be more accessible for people living on the streets. And more than 50-thousand new housing units and treatment slots will be added in California, once the plan has been fully executed.

It’s a project that can take years. So for folks like Tommy, Lydia, and Ryce who are homeless now, where should they go?

” I'm just waiting to see what the city's gonna do about us .”

KALW News Crosscurrents