A federal judge has refused to let Caltrans “wash their hands” of people living in a homeless encampment on Wood Street in Oakland by clearing them from it.

It is unclear though to the camp residents whether the city of Oakland or BNSF Railway Company will be clearing the parts of the camp that they own. The camp is on land owned by all three and possibly land owned by individuals.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick upheld a temporary restraining order Friday preventing the state’s transportation agency from clearing its part of the encampment.

“I’m feeling pretty much every feeling in the book right now,” said Jaz Colibri, a resident of the camp.

That is because, she said, the ruling is pretty unprecedented.

Early in the hearing, Orrick was critical of Caltrans, Oakland, and Alameda County. Attorneys for the three entities had few answers for the judge’s questions. Orrick said Caltrans officials told him the agency is not in the housing business. Oakland and the county are working with Caltrans to provide housing for the homeless residents.

“Everybody wants to wash their hands” of this particular problem, Orrick alleged. “And that’s not going to happen.”

‘A potential catastrophe’

Caltrans attorney Stephen Silver said his agency is concerned about safety following an encampment fire July 11 that got close to oxygen tanks owned by the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

The fire got 215 feet from the EBMUD plant and may have impacted it if the wind was blowing toward the plant that day.

“This is simply a potential catastrophe,” Silver said.

“Everybody wants to wash their hands [of this], and that’s not going to happen.”

U.S. District Judge William Orrick

But Orrick said the potential catastrophe has been there for six years, implying Caltrans has done nothing to mitigate it in that time.

Silver also showed the judge a freeway support structure that was damaged by an encampment fire, but Orrick said that the fire was three years ago.

Orrick said Caltrans has made no progress to house the encampment residents, calling that a state-created problem, too.

Brigitte Nicoletti, an attorney representing the camp residents, said there is nothing in the restraining order that prevents Caltrans from abating fires. She told the judge that residents have said Caltrans has increased the fire danger at the camp.

Nicoletti also said there is no evidence camp residents were involved in the fires.

Mitigating risks

Oakland fire officials said about 100 fires of various sizes and severity have occurred at the camp between April 2021 and July 1 of this year. One person died in a fire in April.

But Nicoletti said the risks Caltrans faces can be mitigated while the risks to the people living at the camp cannot, at least not immediately, if Caltrans cleared the camp.

“Housing is a human right,” Colibri said.

She said she is “feeling hopeful.”

But Colibri is still worried about what proposals those that want to help the residents will make. She wants the residents to provide input and participate in those proposals.

Colibri said those closest to the problem know the best solutions.

Oakland city spokesperson Karen Boyd said city officials have no “firm date when the closure operations on city-owned property on Wood Street will resume.”

Officials with BNSF Railway did not immediately respond to a request for information on their plans for the homeless residents on BNSF property.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped short of disagreeing with Orrick, but said the judge’s decision will “delay Caltrans’ critical work and endanger the public.”

The state has provided $4.7 million in grants to the city of Oakland specifically to help house people at the Wood Street encampment, according to the governor’s office.