About 40 homeless people may be forced to onto the streets of Oakland or elsewhere in the next three weeks when Caltrans starts clearing its property along Oakland’s Wood Street following a federal judge’s ruling Friday.

The city currently has only 40 beds available and about 80 people will be displaced from the northern portion of the Wood Street camp when Caltrans starts clearing that portion.

Caltrans can post notices on the property starting Sept. 5, U.S. District Judge William Orrick said at a hearing that dissolved a temporary restraining order against the state agency. The residents of the encampment had filed suit against Caltrans.

The dissolution will occur in three phases, affecting a total of 200 people when Caltrans clears the whole property, which is in Oakland city limits.

Orrick’s decision comes following a proposal brought to him by city of Oakland officials Thursday night that Orrick said was “thoughtful.”

“It’s admittedly not a perfect proposal,” Orrick said.

Fire safety concerns

The northern portion is closest to oxygen tanks owned by the East Bay Municipal Utility District. The tanks, if ignited by a fire at the encampment, would cause a catastrophe, EBMUD officials have said.

Since March 2020, more than 240 fires have occurred at the encampment. A fire in July came 200 feet from the oxygen tanks, Caltrans attorney Mark Guenzi said.

Orrick said he has tried to create the possibility of relocation that is least harmful to the people of Wood Street.

He said residents of the encampment have no constitutional right to housing.

Attorney Brigitte Nicoletti, who was representing the people at the encampment, asked Orrick to consider requiring the defendants to mitigate the fire risk while the city and Alameda County coordinate outreach to the homeless residents.

Attorneys for the city and county sparred over making outreach available, each suggesting the other should do it.

“They are residents of your county,” Orrick told Buddy Rowell, representing Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi. “Everybody’s got to be involved.”

“They are residents of your county. Everybody’s got to be involved.”

U.S. District Judge William Orrick, addressing Alameda County official Buddy Rowell

“Can’t wash your hands of the issue,” Orrick said, something he accused the defendants of in one of the previous hearings.

“We don’t have the funds,” and the city got money to address the encampment, Rowell said. The encampment sits on property owned by the Oakland, Caltrans and BNSF Railway.

“We don’t have the capability to do the outreach,” Rowell said.

But Jamilah Jefferson for the city of Oakland said the county already has people out there working with the residents of the encampment. So, it would not take much more effort to offer them housing.

But Rowell said that the people working on behalf of the county are providing medical care, and do not have the ability or bandwidth to provide additional outreach.

Vehicles must be spared

The city has already started clearing the homeless residents from city property. Friday’s hearing was strictly about the residents on Caltrans’ property.

Orrick also made it clear to the defendants that they must keep the vehicles owned by the residents of the encampment, so the residents do not lose them.

“These are vehicles of human beings, and they are not to be lost,” Orrick said.

A judge has ruled that vehicles belonging to residents who are removed from the Wood Street homeless encampment in Oakland must be saved. “These are vehicles of human beings, and they are not to be lost,” Judge William Orrick said. (Google image)

Guenzi and Jefferson argued against it.

But Orrick said there must be some sort of plan and he left that to Rowell, Jefferson and Caltrans.

“The Court’s indication that it will lift the injunction in a week means Caltrans will hopefully be able to proceed to clean up the most dangerous portion of the Wood Street encampment in its efforts to ensure the safety of those living at the encampment and the surrounding community,” Gov. Gavin Newsom and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a joint statement.

“The City of Oakland will support Caltrans by providing housing outreach and offer available shelter beds to those living at the encampment and we look forward to our continued collaboration.”

Keith Burbank is currently a fulltime reporter covering Alameda County and Oakland news for Bay City News. He has also worked on the Data Points project for Local News Matters, finding trends and stories about the region through data. In 2019, he was a California Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, producing a series about homeless deaths in Santa Clara County. He worked as a swing shift editor for the newswire for several years as well. Outside of journalism, Keith enjoys computer programming, math, economics and music.