Carroll Fife, the director of the Oakland office for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment walks outside a homeless encampment in Oakland, California, on Jan. 28, 2020. (Photo by PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images)

Since December 2020, a community of housed and unhoused people created an ecovillage known as “Cob on Wood” next to a train line in West Oakland. Tucked under a highway overpass, this common space supports the nearby Wood Street houseless encampment by providing an outdoor kitchen, shower, community garden, gathering space, and other necessities. However, for the past month, both the City of Oakland and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which owns the land, have been evicting residents and threatening to demolish the “Cob on Wood” community center. After two waves of evictions in the northern part of the miles-long Wood Street encampment, at least 80 residents have been forced to relocate to the southern part. With more evictions planned for Oct. 12 and 13, Wood Street residents are hoping that the City of Oakland will declare houselessness a state of emergency and open vacant city land to house those being evicted.

“It’s very criminalizing; it’s very pointed and oppressive,” said Jaz, a resident at Wood Street. “They’re not here to clean. They’re here to evict.”

In the past 10 years, Oakland’s houseless population has doubled, having grown by 1,000 people since the start of the 2020 pandemic alone. With over 5,000 unhoused people, the City of Oakland recently received $5.6 million dollars of Homekey funding for transitional housing acquisition and rehabilitation, totaling $55.5 million in State Homekey funds since 2020 intended to house Oaklanders. With this funding, the city plans to provide a total of 276 affordable units for the unhoused (222 permanent and 54 transitional). However, according to organizers at Wood Street, the city’s solutions to the housing crisis are not enough, exacerbated by the continued economic inequality that hits Oakland’s most vulnerable.

With the city’s solutions falling short, residents at Wood Street took matters into their own hands. “Cob on Wood” is named after an earth-building technique that mixes clay, sand, straw, and water to create shapes and structures. The community center is composed of handmade buildings on unused state lands, insulated by shipping pallets that are filled with dry refuse, sealed by drywall, and covered with mud and hay. Altogether, the homes were built using $86,364 in donations and have become a center for food distribution, pop-up clinics, free clothing and supplies, regular open mics, and other community town hall events. 

“Having the Cob space here has been incredible,” said Jaz. “There’s a working, running shower and a compostable toilet, and there’s medical supplies in the medical clinic for emergency situations, and there’s a lovely fire pit that can keep people warm and the area lit when it gets late at night.”

Jaz has lived in the Wood Street encampment for four months. She had quit her job at Target but couldn’t afford rent or make ends meet by working for DoorDash and doing unpaid advocacy work. Having volunteered with Cob on Wood previously, Jaz recalls feeling safe and welcomed by the community with open arms. 

“It’s like this sanctuary for a lot of folks that are chronically unhoused for one reason or another,” said Jaz. “Society has extricated us and has made it so we had to create our own space where we feel safe and we can look after one another.”

Caltrans has been trying to evict Wood Street for months after a series of fires broke out last year. However, in July, federal judge William H. Orrick issued a temporary restraining order saying the department could not evict residents so suddenly and without an alternative shelter plan in place. After the restraining order was issued, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to pull $4.7 million in funding for a shelter project the city had planned for Wood Street if the evictions went through without a plan. Then, in late August, Orrick lifted the restraining order, citing that residents and public and private organizations had been given adequate notice to find alternative shelter.

According to Martin v. Boise, cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds available for their homeless population—a shortage that Oakland currently faces. As such, Cob on Wood organizers have pointed out that Caltrans and the City of Oakland are illegally evicting Wood Street residents, as many individuals have nowhere to go except the streets after being displaced.

In a recent press release, Caltrans recognized the lack of housing available for the over 300 individuals kicked out of the Wood Street encampment. The department states that while it “understands that the primary solutions to improve conditions for people experiencing homelessness is permanent housing,” it cannot provide any of those solutions. Instead, it lists requirements for a future shelter that could be developed, but that housing has yet to be made available for residents at Wood Street.

Though the City of Oakland has said they will use their $4.7 million grant to expand their community cabin program, thus adding a 100-bed village at Wood and 26th streets where the encampment already exists, Jaz states that the shelter is not compatible for many of the people living on Wood Street.

“It probably won’t even be servicing many of us here,” Jaz said. “They’re basically saying they’re evicting us to help, which is not the case unfortunately.”

The shelter options that are available right now include congregate shelter beds, which are hospital-style dormitories where a multitude of people sleep in a room together. Residents are only allowed to bring as much as they can fit under the bed, and they cannot have pets or vehicles. For many of the residents at Wood Street, it’s not a viable option.

“It’s just a place to sleep, and then you have to leave during the day,” Jaz said. “It means giving up all the support you’ve created and built for yourself in exchange for a place to sleep at night, which is not an equitable nor positive outcome for anyone and actually sets them back to ground zero because you can only be in those shelters for a temporary amount of time. You’re just going to go there for some nights and then end up back on the street.”

Jaz would like to see people be permanently housed using shipping container homes that have been refabricated with running water and electricity. According to Jaz’s calculations, 120 people could be housed as opposed to just 50 people or 100.  

“We’ve been trying to work with [Caltrans] and collaborate with them on real solutions,” Jaz said. “We’ve put forth a bunch of ideas and ways from folks who know what they need to get by and what would actually help them get ahead and maybe move out of a place of destitution and into a place of thriving. Though we’ve already kind of made that for ourselves.”

Amid evictions, Jaz said they need all the boots on the ground to help people relocate their belongings. As the Cob on Wood community returns from a three-day bike ride to the state capital in Sacramento to raise awareness, they will continue to advocate for community-minded solutions.

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...