color photograph of an outdoor protest. people in masks hold up cardboard signs reading "solidarity with our unhoused neighbors" and "protest our unhoused neighbors"
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 25: Protesters demonstrate on Sunset Boulevard against the removal of a homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake on March 25, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In the five years Freeway Blalock and her husband have lived near the West Oakland ecovillage known as Cob on Wood, the couple has seen the area change from a nearly empty space to a bustling community. Created to support the neighboring Wood Street houseless encampment, Cob on Wood is a safe refuge from the state-sanctioned violence that houseless people continually face, providing residents with amenities such as a community garden, gathering space, outdoor kitchen, and shower.  

However, this safe haven could all be lost in weeks. Ever since October 2022, the City of Oakland and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which owns the land, have been evicting residents in waves and threatening to demolish the Cob on Wood community center. For Blalock, the demolition would mean losing her home.

“It’s definitely something we’re worried about,” said Blalock, who has lived in several different encampments across the country. Before Cob on Wood, she and her husband had been living in what she described as a “landfill that people inhabited” in North Berkeley, California. City officials then told the couple to move to Wood Street, where they would allegedly be left alone. “This is the first place that we’ve really felt like it was home, a place where we belong, and just knowing that at any time that could be taken away from us, it’s heartbreaking.”

Residents at Wood Street have already lost countless possessions and valuable belongings due to random street cleanings. To them, the city-sanctioned sweeps are an infringement on their personal and private space.

“Everybody here has already lost so much,” said Blalock. “We’ve been through so much. There is so much trauma, there’s connections that belong to the street, not just the people. There’s friends that we’ve lost that we never got to bury, and this is sort of their resting ground.”

For Blalock, Wood Street was more than just a home—it was also a space filled with emotional connections.

“Knowing that at any point in time the city could take that away when they were the ones who told us to come here,” Blalock said. “It’s infuriating.”

The most recent wave of Wood Street evictions were supposed to occur on Jan. 18, but a judge determined evictions would constitute a “state-created danger” and extended a temporary injunction to Feb. 3. The judge also downgraded the evictions to a “deep cleaning” of the street, during which the city could still force people to temporarily vacate the area.

“It is rich that the city is in such a hurry to ‘clean’ the street when they continue to refuse residents’ requests for garbage dumpsters,” said community organizer Armando Solorzano. “Residents and housed volunteers have organized extensive and regular clean-ups, which are made more difficult by illegal dumping and the city’s lack of support. The city attorney expressed the urgent need to clear storm drains when, in fact, the city has left them to be clogged and overflowing year after year. The city has left the burned husk of an RV on the street for months, but now they’re in a hurry to clean? This is a pretext for displacement.” 

The city’s ability to evict the residents at Wood Street is predicated on the promise that they will develop permanent affordable housing in the community’s place. The proposed permanent affordable housing would have 170 units, 85 owned and 85 rented, but it is uncertain if Wood Street residents would be notified, or even be able to be notified given their uncertain access to technology, once the housing is available.

The temporary injunction delaying Wood Street evictions will be lifted when the city can prove that alternative shelter is being provided for the encampment’s residents. In the interim, residents have been told they would be placed in a BOSS cabin community made up of  temporary tiny homes, though the space has not yet been created. According to Solorzano, the city failed to do the outreach required, delaying the timeline for installing the proposed transitional cabin community.

“It’s preposterous that they tried to evict the community without this cabin site being built yet, or without making sufficient shelter offers,” said Solorzano. “Through self-governance and mutual aid, the Wood Street community has maintained the needs of its members while being directly affronted by the city’s failed policies, which have not prioritized creating long-lasting humane affordable housing solutions.”

The City of Oakland received a $4.7 million grant from the state for the BOSS cabin community, which would be located on Wood Street. However, progress has been slow, especially considering the site’s completion has become a pretext and precondition for evicting the community from the land. According to residents, BOSS officials have not been able to answer questions about curfew and visitation policies, whether residents can be evicted, or how many showers and bathrooms will be available.

“They expected people to agree to give up what they currently have for something very possibly worse,” said Solorzano. “The self-governed community on Wood Street accepts and provides for all and provides greater safety and care than the bureaucratic system is capable of.”

According to Solorzano, city-sanctioned intervention sites are often unsanitary and unsafe from fires and violence. Many who go through the programs eventually end up back on the street, having given up their belongings and the stability of their former communities to join in the first place.

Wood Street residents and organizers are calling on all allies and concerned citizens to join their campaign to stop the community’s eviction, which involves signing a solidarity letter addressed to Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao. 

Wood Street residents like Blalock say they are also willing to work with the city to improve how the interventions are done and hope the city can keep up their end of the deal and provide a place for folks to live autonomously. 

“I would like to see the city get my friends to a place where we can continue to do what we know works because what we’ve built here is a community. It’s more than just an encampment; it’s a family, and I don’t want to see that separated,” said Blalock.

Solorzano hopes the Wood Street community won’t be threatened with more evictions, allowing them to continue providing care and other necessary services to the unhoused Oakland community with more “sensitivity and competency” than the city-contracted service providers. “The residents implement the solutions to homelessness every day out of necessity for survival in the form of self-help and mutual aid,” Solorzano said. “The millions of dollars currently being spent on the problem are going to waste. Funds should be used in direct support of resident-led efforts. They have accomplished so much with so little resources and can do great things with the right support.”

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...