News from Somewhere
THERE IS A FIRE BURNING under the maze of freeways connecting Oakland to San Francisco. Amid piles of discarded car seats, rained-on couches, bikes with no gears and gears with no bikes, and faded signs asking for housing, a group of five neighbors are talking around logs burning in an improvised firepit. Their neighborhood is one of at least three hundred homeless encampments in Oakland. Deeper under the freeway, someone is playing Rage Against the Machine from loudspeakers run on pirated electricity. Fluorescent lights illuminate a sprawl of RVs and self-made homes, the silhouettes of precarious wooden towers rising out of ten years of urban sediment. Rats hide from the bright light but rustle through the debris of the encampment. They don’t come close to the fire.
Theo Jones is speaking: “We need a win from the city to gain strength and power for our position, to not have to move out of here ever, that’s my goal,” he says, leaning in and addressing the group with a feverish intensity, a large bottle of mango kombucha in hand. He wears his shoulder-length gray hair parted down the middle and tucked behind his ears. John Janosko is skeptical. He doesn’t think they have the right to be making demands. “We don’t really do things together as a unit,” Janosko says. “Nobody does shit out here. Do you see anybody outside their little zone, doing anything?”
“We are now,” Jones responds. The group leaves the meeting hours later, resolved to ask the city for dumpsters. They walk through the February night’s chill to their vans, tuff sheds, tents, and makeshift homes, headlights racing all the while along the freeways above.
This encampment is home to between one hundred and three hundred people, depending on the day. Along a half-mile stretch of Wood Street, in West Oakland, people live in tents and RVs lined up over a half dozen lots separated from the street by a row of barbed-wire fences. To the north and west of Wood Street are the freeways and industrial warehouses that border San Francisco Bay. The people who live along Wood Street and the lots bordering it, including Jones and Janosko, are on city land. Others live under the three braided freeways Interstate 80, I-880, and I-580, and in an area Janosko and his friends have taken to calling the Lost World because it is mostly hidden from view. The California Department of Transportation owns that land, and refers to it as parcels one, two, and three. More than three hundred thousand people pass overhead every day.
Residents call this encampment “the Bottoms,” not just because it’s a few feet above sea level, but because it is the farthest someone could be from the affluent heights of the Oakland hills while still living in the same city, and the last place people want to end up. The encampment is home to a higher percentage of Black people, many born and raised in Oakland, than the city as a whole. While Oakland is 24 percent Black, Black people make up an estimated 70 percent of encampment residents.
Inland from Wood Street, in West Oakland, other groups of neighbors have had their own meetings. They’ve demanded that the city do something about the encampments, which they view as an eyesore and public safety hazard. Fires are a problem, as they frequently break out in the highly flammable jumbles of debris and RVs and sometimes threaten to spread, endangering homes and businesses as well as the lives of encampment residents. These neighbors see the encampments as a blight on one of Oakland’s few remaining neighborhoods where Black people are the largest single ethnic group, already burdened with disproportionate air pollution and police violence. When people camp in parks in the Oakland hills, they are removed. In West Oakland, they are allowed to remain more often.
There are dozens of encampments in West Oakland, but the Bottoms is the largest. It is the place people move when they are pushed out of other encampments or the rental market in other parts of the city. It has also been the site where activists challenge Oakland’s treatment of its most vulnerable residents. They argue that if the city won’t create something better, then it must at least not make people’s lives worse by evicting them and destroying their few remaining belongings. In Oakland and other West Coast cities, mutual aid networks have stepped in to support people living on the street. They cook food, help with camp cleanups, and build homes. Private citizens provided the only bathrooms and clean water at Wood Street for months during the pandemic. Last May, a group called Innovation for Artists Building Communities announced the completion of a number of buildings under the freeways that they called Cob on Wood, a ten-minute walk northwest from where Janosko and Jones live. Built with flame retardant mud, the small village includes a shower, free store, and community health clinic. The village, an attempt to improve the lives of people living in shelters of last resort, exists under threat of destruction by the state.
The Covid-19 pandemic gave some of the people along Wood Street a reprieve. The City of Oakland recognized that shuffling this population around the city—with some pushed into indoor shelters—was not the best way to control the spread of the virus. Now, as the city lifts mask mandates and restrictions on indoor gatherings, evictions are back on the table.
Between 2015 and 2019, the number of people sleeping outside of traditional housing in Oakland increased by 86 percent to more than four thousand. The city provides 1,558 beds for temporary shelter and had just under three hundred for long-term housing as of early 2021. Most big cities along the West Coast are in similar straits. Sacramento has more than fifty-five hundred people living without shelter; Seattle reports nearly twelve thousand; Los Angeles County has more than sixty-three thousand. Instead of building more homes, cities have turned to policing and criminalizing life on the street, pushing people living outside into industrial zones and transportation wastelands so that affluent residents and businesses do not have to look at them.
A growing number of unhoused people are refusing to live on the run, working to stop evictions and to build something lasting where they already live. In Portland, Fresno, and Seattle, residents and allies are fighting encampment evictions when there is nowhere to go and reclaiming the means to subsist in urban landscapes that make space for capital but not people.
Before Janosko arrived at Wood Street, he spent years in the streets and parks of Oakland, shuffled around by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and Oakland Police. He, along with other Wood Street residents, avoided shelters because he found them depressing. Lydia Blumberg, a neighbor of Janosko’s, followed the same trajectory. She considered shelters more dangerous than the street, even before the pandemic.
Both Blumberg and Janosko preferred to live outside of the existing system, with friends rather than strangers, in places they did not have to leave each day only to get back in line, without the option of bringing their dogs, Duchess and Nova. Competing in an expensive rental market was hardly an option; finding a place for a tent or an RV at least preserves a kind of independent living impossible in the shelter system. “They call us service resistant when we don’t grovel for the crumbs that they’re throwing out, that are not better than what we’ve got,” Blumberg says.
Before moving to Oakland, Blumberg lived on the streets of San Francisco. She dealt with anti-homeless laws that make sitting and sleeping in public places illegal, as well as the police responses to the city’s 311 line, which allows residents to make municipal complaints about unhoused people. Janosko and his friends first camped at Mosswood Park, a small square of grass and redwood trees in Oakland. Caltrans removed them and destroyed their belongings, beginning a years-long stretch of frequent evictions. Janosko says he had his stuff destroyed while he slept and was once forced to attend a Caltrans meeting under threat of arrest, only to find his camp gone when he returned. “They would come and throw everything into a cruncher and destroy all our belongings, right in front of us,” Janosko remembers. “It’s not a good feeling, I’ll tell you that.”
Sweeps destroy more than property. They also break up the networks of mutual support that are essential for survival on the street. At Wood Street, clothes, tools, and food are shared between neighbors. Janosko, Jones, and others share a diesel generator for nighttime power, chipping in for fuel and fixing the machine when it breaks. Janosko has been to jail several times since becoming unhoused. He says the community is always there for him when he gets out. “They let me into their tents, they let me into their RVs, they fed me, they gave me money to survive, they made sure that I was okay,” Janosko says. “I didn’t even have to ask for it really. They asked, ‘What do you need?’”
Blumberg says she feels safer as a single woman at Wood Street than she did in shelters or in those stretches of being shuffled between locations by police. “Every time, especially single women, get uprooted from where they’re at, it’s making them more of a target,” Blumberg says. “If I’m walking down the street . . . if anybody sees something happening to me, they’ll have my back.”
Encampment removals are not just traumatic for their targets; they are expensive for the city. A 2021 audit of Oakland’s encampment management policy found that the city spent an estimated $12.6 million implementing the policy over two fiscal years. The auditors estimated it cost $1,464 per hour, enough to pay a person’s rent for a month, to close, re-close, clear, or “clean” encampments—a process the city undertook 479 times, only slowing because of pandemic-related directives in March 2020. Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons handles much of the planning around encampment clearing in Oakland. She says removing encampments is necessary when they block traffic or sidewalks or endanger drivers or pedestrians. Many evictions, however, are not motivated by safety, but rather the unsightly presence of poverty in a city that likes to think of itself as progressive.
Janosko says he went through a three-month period of being evicted just about every week. Then police told him and his friend LaMonte Ford they wouldn’t be bothered if they went down to Wood Street. The Wood Street encampment where the two Black men ended up was a popular site for illegal dumping and ditching stripped-down stolen cars.
During the years Janosko was shuffled around North Oakland, he found that trash was a tipping point. He says his original eviction from Mosswood Park happened after the trash built up to a level Caltrans found unacceptable. The people there had no access to dumpsters. Janosko says trash is the biggest quality-of-life issue facing people living on the street.
One of the main strategies residents and activists at Wood Street use to stop eviction threats is cleaning up the neighborhood, bringing in groups of community members to help residents clear targeted sections of the encampment. They both lessen eviction pressure and improve community health, reducing rats and rot. Annmarie Bustamante, an organizer with Artists Building Communities, the group that built Cob on Wood, says changing the aesthetics of an encampment can cause onlookers to have different impressions of the place—and the people who live there. “The whole narrative of having unhoused people [seen as] subhuman, and therefore it’s okay to displace them and not give them services, it gets hugely reduced when an area looks nice,” Bustamante says.
The residents of Wood Street use trash cleanups, gardening, and other forms of beautification to assert their belonging in a city that refuses to acknowledge them as citizens. In contrast to the increasingly gray and boxy aesthetic of the gentrifying Bay Area, each home in the encampment has its own character. Theo Jones, who lives in a white van, has stretched white fabric around it, creating a shaded space in front of his sliding door. Uphill from his parking place, Jones has another white tent built over wooden pallets where he paints and plays guitar.
Janosko sleeps in an RV but spends most of his time in the four-room wooden structure he has connected to the vehicle. In the uncluttered rooms, Janosko has shelves displaying glass vases, paintings, and a row of bike frames hung in a line. A sign reading “Bike Lounge” is tacked to the door connecting the home to his patio, which he shares with Ford. Jones used his stretched fabric technique, which he tightens by twisting small stones in a rib down the sheet, to cover the patio. “I like entertaining and I want people to be comfortable,” Janosko says.
The stability of having a place to go back to also gives people a chance to live healthier lives. In this light, both Blumberg and Bustamante see eviction defense as a kind of harm reduction. Living under threat of eviction causes constant anxiety and pushes people toward unhealthy behavior. Ford says he has been high less often in the six years since he moved to Wood Street. Before, the threat of sweeps was always on his mind. He’d spend $250 a week on drugs. Now he estimates he spends ten dollars a week. Not having to worry about all of his belongings and his home being thrown into a dumpster while he is out also means he is able to work more often. Ford saved enough to buy a car, which he uses to pick up dinners for his daughter.
It Takes a Village
By July of last year, when the volume of trash had been drastically reduced at Janosko and Jones’s section of the Wood Street encampment, the residents arranged a meeting with the city. Carroll Fife, a member of the city council who gained office after squatting at a West Oakland house with Moms 4 Housing, walked past a new garden with green bushes and yucca plants that Ford planted in the space previously occupied by a six-foot-high debris pile. City official LaTonda Simmons was also in attendance, along with Lara Tannenbaum, the manager of Oakland’s community housing services.
There were about thirty residents gathered for the meeting on Janosko’s patio, as well as reporters and activists. They stood around a raised platform where the city representatives sat alongside Janosko and Ford. The pair were dressed up, Ford in cowboy boots and a blue spotted tie. The city employees described the approximately 170 affordable housing units the city planned to have the nonprofits Habitat for Humanity and MidPen construct after bulldozing or removing the existing residents’ homes, with an unknown number of units available for currently unhoused individuals. Tannenbaum mentioned that they would be welcome at the Safe RV lot that had just opened down the street. Of course, that would mean finding an RV.
The RV lot is one of Oakland’s attempts at a partial solution. Purchased by the venture capitalist Fred B. Craves, the land had been home to fifty people. Starting in 2018, the city staged repeated eviction attempts for over a year. Though met by resistance from local grassroots activist group United Front Against Displacement, the evictions whittled down the number of people on the lot until it was finally cleared in 2020. After sitting empty for eight months, it reopened as a city-sanctioned Safe RV lot with the capacity to hold about forty mobile homes. The barbed-wire fence has been repaired and the murals cleared. The cement lot now has a gate that locks at night, with security and a shower. Oakland’s claim to 1,558 temporary beds includes this Safe RV lot and others like it, which critics say are the same thing as being homeless—but with a curfew. The lot operates under a limited-time lease, and there is no guarantee residents will be able to stay long term.
After the city officials presented their plan, Janosko brought the mic around, his dreads folded through the gap in the back of his gray cap. Initially a skeptic of their plan, he now hosted their most public event. One woman expressed concerns that she wouldn’t know her neighbors after moving. Ford said he had already seen the community at Wood Street work wonders. He described a man so beaten down he hadn’t spoken to anyone in years. At the Bottoms, the man began to communicate again. A woman holding a tiny white dog said she felt safe as a single woman at Wood Street. She had tried the RV site but was unable to get back to her home when she returned from work one night after 10 p.m. She moved back to her old spot after that. “Don’t try to displace us. I am comfortable and happy here. I am safe,” she said.
Jones took the mic in black skinny jeans and a black jacket, his bedazzled silver shoes with hearts on the sides throwing off the tech CEO appearance. As he described his hopes for the lot they lived on, a section of the Bottoms which they had renamed “The Wood Street Commons,” Ford walked around a printed diagram on a piece of plywood, displaying it to residents and visitors. The blueprints included additional housing units, a bike repair shop, a café, and other community-centered buildings. As Jones described their plan, which they hoped to run with a community land trust model that had worked in other cities, Tannenbaum and Simmons chatted with their neighbors.
“We ask you to look past the appearance of trash, visual blight, and the stereotypes of homelessness, and see what people with the least resources can do with sufficient time and space,” Jones said.
The land model proposed by Jones has seen success in other cities, where self-governed tiny house villages have helped provide housing with a sense of community and ownership. In Eugene, Oregon, Square One Villages operates four tiny home villages, with two more on the way, using the land trust model. The non-profit owns the land and community co-ops run the villages. One, Opportunity Village, functions as a shelter, meant to be temporary housing and run with resident input but not direct control, while the others feature larger homes and are meant to be long-term affordable housing. In Fresno, the Dakota Eco Garden provides transitional housing to people coming off the street. Residents make their own rules and run the daily operations of the house like any roommates would. Tiny home villages with democratic self-governance have sprung up in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Madison, Wisconsin. Despite this track record of successes, it took civil disobedience to get city officials to take ideas coming from below seriously.
In the months after the meeting, Simmons says they considered the residents’ request but were unable to come up with the funding to create a new co-governed tiny home village—though the city found funding for sweeps during the same period. The proposed village would be the third temporary housing program in Oakland where residents could make their own rules and manage the daily functions of their community. One such tiny home village opened in November 2021, inspired by similar programs in the Pacific Northwest. Still, the tiny home villages created by the city thus far are crowded, gray, and require residents to live with roommates in small spaces. They remind Wood Street residents of prisons. Simmons says the city would like “to shift the community into an intervention”—a euphemism for eviction—but recognizes that they will have to work with residents of the Bottoms to create an acceptable plan.
From July 2018 through June 2020, the city of Oakland cleared out approximately five hundred encampments. In that same time, the number of encampments they provided with toilets, showers, or hand-washing stations went from twenty to forty. LaTonda Simmons claims that the city has also expanded trash pickups since the audit was released. The audit estimates that $3.2 million of the money spent on encampments went to Public Works, the department charged with removing encampments and cleaning the surrounding garbage. Three million dollars went to police, who stand around while Public Works does its job. The audit suggests that the city “should reassess whether the current levels of law enforcement staff are needed” to “manage encampments.” Human Services, in charge of outreach and hygiene in encampments, is estimated to have received $2.1 million. The audit found that outreach to encampments mostly involved informing residents that they were going to be evicted in three days.
Beyond the direct costs of sweeping encampments, the city spends millions fixing problems caused by a lack of investment in the things people living on the street say they need. During a meeting with the city on fire safety, Blumberg says she tried to pitch city-provided “legit water and power” as a fire safety measure. They weren’t sold on it. Residents continue to cook on gas burners and open pit fires in the midst of an encampment packed with flammable RVs and piles of debris. In the two years covered by the audit, Oakland spent approximately $1.8 million on fire department costs in encampments. They also spent $313,000 through the transportation department, a significant chunk of which went to fixing light posts, including those that had been used to pirate electricity. The city spent $1.2 million defending itself from lawsuits due to wrongful eviction and breach of constitutional rights. Advocates argue that a person cannot be punished simply for being alive in a place that does not have housing for them.
There are showers in Raimondi Park, across Wood Street from the encampment, but residents claim the door has been locked since the encampment grew. Instead of using the already-existing city showers, residents wait for a non-profit to bring mobile showers by one day a week, or they use the shower at Cob on Wood. “City’s not giving us really anything. It’s people,” Janosko says.
The residents of the Wood Street Commons have a vision of what their lives could be. They are willing to fight the city to get it. When Ford and Jones started their meetings, their aims were humble. Ford wanted people to stop stealing and to request city resources. The meetings evolved and things became “very healthy,” in Ford’s words. After months of waiting, Wood Street residents were able to secure the porta-potties and trash pickup they requested from the city. “In meeting and talking with each other, we have gained strength, a little understanding,” Ford says. “We’ve created an environment where you don’t have to steal. . . . Give us your ask, we’ll try to do what we can.”
In the wake of small victories, residents and activists now imagine something more ambitious than trash collection. They want what most people in neighborhoods want: stability rather than eviction. A chance to continually improve their surroundings. A city that gives them the resources to improve their lives rather than tearing down what they have built. In Portland, the residents and activists who founded Dignity Village camped out on city land, resisting evictions and holding media spectacles, before Portland sanctioned their tiny home village as transitional housing. A group of organizers founded Nickelsville Seattle in 2008, squatting on city property and resisting eviction to the point of arrest. They have been in an on-and-off conflict with the city ever since, resulting in offers of city land to build on. Along the West Coast, encampment residents have only been able to access city resources after resisting eviction from their homes.
Last November, the city posted another round of eviction notices on a part of the Wood Street encampment. Blumberg, Ford, Jones, and a group of cop watchers were all there when police cordoned off the street. Department of Public Works (DPW) employees wearing oversuits of white teflon began clearing a mound of illegally dumped garbage. As they removed old mattresses and piles of wood, police and outreach workers tried to convince residents to voluntarily move down the block. Management of the new Safe RV lot had complained about the people living in RVs outside of their fence. They wanted them to move without any promise of actual housing, or even a place where they would be undisturbed long term.
As police and DPW workers moved down Wood Street, telling people they needed to leave, Ford conducted his own outreach. No one had to move, he told friends and new acquaintances. There was nowhere to go. “No, you’re not ready!” Ford called out, walking toward a man being confronted by the police. “The pushing and pulling has to stop somewhere. It’s causing mental instability. Nobody is understanding that. That’s first: our mental wellness, our physical wellness, that is what’s important. This is damaging us.”
The city workers left at noon, with some trash cleared but no one displaced. LaMonte Ford sat in a gap in the gray fence topped with barbed wire, the street to his right and a field of green grass to his left, another empty lot of city-owned land. Tears ran down his otherwise impassive face as he looked forward into the sunlit field. Organizing his neighborhood has made Ford believe that he has the power to change the place. With a fresh outlook on life, he feels he can be part of a society from where he’s at. But right then, he was just tired.
Ford walked down Wood Street, passing homes he had helped save from demolition and the people he barely knew who lived there, and through the gate to the city lot he calls home. An activist had painted a mural that hung on the gate. “Wood Street Commons” was written in white block letters over a pink-and-blue sunset, with vines sprouting houses that reached into the sky.
Joe Purtell is an independent journalist from San Francisco. He writes about urban and environmental geographies, community building, and climate change.
Co-published with The Baffler.