color photograph of two Black men standing in the midground in a homeless encampment near a highway ramp. Tarps, bicycles, planks of wood, and other items are piled around the perimeter of a chain link fence
OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 5: A view of massive homeless encampment in West Oakland, California, on April 5, 2023. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After a months-long process, city officials forcibly displaced people living in Oakland’s largest houseless encampment. For five years, the space on Wood Street was home for people like Freeway Blalock, her husband, and the dozens of others who took refuge in the space from the state-sanctioned violence that houseless people continually face. City officials once urged the unhoused community to go to Wood Street, where they would allegedly be left alone. Now, the lot is fenced off, and Blalock and many others are struggling to determine where to go next.

“How are we supposed to go from being on Wood Street if we don’t have anywhere else to go?” Blalock said. “We can’t just park our van anywhere without fear of having it towed or impounded. And that’s true for a lot of our friends. The city has laws against being homeless, and that needs to change.”

Since December 2020, a community of housed and unhoused people created an ecovillage known as “Cob on Wood” next to a train yard in West Oakland. Tucked under a highway overpass, this common space supports the nearby Wood Street houseless encampment by providing basic necessities like a community garden, gathering space, an outdoor kitchen, and a place to shower. However, for months, the City of Oakland and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which owns the land, have forcibly removed residents and threatened to demolish the “Cob on Wood” community center. 

After two waves of displacement in the northern part of the miles-long Wood Street encampment in October, more than 80 residents were forced to relocate to the southern part. Advocates fought against the evictions in court and won a temporary restraining order, but federal Judge William H. Orrick lifted the order Aug. 26 after determining that “adequate shelter” was available for Wood Street residents at the new so-called “community cabin” site that is currently under construction at 26th and Wood streets.

With the lot cleared, some have taken shelter at city-run sites, others are in temporary motel rooms provided by Anti-Police Terror Project, and some have returned to the streets. Wood Street residents hope the City of Oakland will listen to their expertise and heed their suggestions to open vacant city land to house those who were displaced.

“We don’t really know [where we’re going] yet,” Blalock said. “We’re trying to figure out which area the majority of people have gone to that we feel safe going to. We’re just not sure yet where that’s going to be.”

Blalock said she woke up on April 20 to helicopters and the sound of bulldozers. When she looked out of her tent, she saw two of her friends in handcuffs being escorted off the grounds and a group of police officers lining the perimeter of the space. Officers told Blalock and her husband they had to leave the premises and that they were not allowed to bring their dog with them and had to leave him in the tent. A friend later grabbed the dog and brought him to Blalock.

“They made it very clear that we didn’t have a choice that either we can leave of our own free will, or we can leave in handcuffs, but either way, we were not going to be staying there the rest of the day,” Blalock said. “I have a knee injury as well and a couple of physical disabilities that prevent me from being able to move at the speed that they were requiring. And they just continue to tell us that we weren’t moving fast enough and that if we didn’t get our stuff out of there by a certain time we were going to be arrested, and so we had to leave behind quite a few things.”

The city offers temporary housing at a community cabin, but Blalock said she and her husband were assaulted and had their mail opened when they were last there.  

“There’s a laundry list of reasons that we couldn’t go back to living in a community cabin,” Blalock said. “The city tells me that was what they were offering, and either I could take it or leave it.” 

Blalock was able to stay two nights at a motel provided by Anti-Police Terror Project but will soon have to determine where they will go next. The eviction on Wood Street was supposed to begin April 10, but Blalock and other residents were able to hold the Department of Public Works officials and police officers off for two days. 

“They weren’t having any conversations with us about what was going on,” Blalock said. “They were having all these discussions about what was going to happen next in secrecy and excluding us from them.”

On April 13, the unhoused residents of Wood Street erected a barrier to prevent the violent destruction of their community and demanded the city negotiate with them. By 6:15 p.m. that day, a Department of Public Works bulldozer accompanied by the Oakland Police Department smashed through the fence surrounding the Wood Street encampment with no notice, endangering residents and volunteers in the vicinity. The bulldozer and police immediately sped off, as captured in a video by advocates with the Anti-Police Terror Project. 

According to advocates, OPD and DPW had said earlier in the day that they would not use force to enter the encampment after a tense confrontation on Wednesday. Police and DPW retreated after the confrontation and spent the day on April 13 focused on cleaning the street, repeatedly assuring residents and volunteers that they would not enter the lot against their will. Residents considered this a small victory. Four days into a planned 10-day sweep, the city hadn’t even begun to clear the main encampment area.

By April 25, camp residents filed a new temporary restraining order, the city extended the eviction period through the next week, and the city acknowledged that only two spaces remained on site. According to Martin v. Boise, shelter space is supposed to be offered to unhoused individuals being displaced, but advocates say it was not met.

Many Wood Street residents have been living on the current land for as long as a decade. Many residents moved to Wood Street from other locations around the city, after Oakland police officers instructed them to move there. The city told people that they would not be bothered at Wood Street.

Wood Street residents continue to demand that the city negotiates with them about the terms of the encampment closure. Blalock said the city needs to put a moratorium on all evictions until they can offer an actual adequate alternative to the community cabins. Blalock said organizers still need legal observers, volunteers, and food, and supporters can donate through a GoFundMe account, or to the Anti-Police Terror Project.

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...