Oakland city council approves moving homeless camp to an old Army base

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JULY 14: The Wood Street homeless encampment off West Grand Avenue is seen from a drone view in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, July 14, 2022. City officials sent in crews in to clean up the encampment after a massive fire on July 11. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Marisa Kendall

Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND — Despite objections that the site is potentially hazardous and tied up in bureaucratic red tape, City Council voted Tuesday to pursue turning a defunct Army base into much-needed shelter for homeless Oaklanders.

The unanimous vote, which flew in the face of the city administrator’s recommendation, followed a heated discussion in which multiple council members expressed dismay with the lack of urgency the city has shown regarding the homelessness crisis.

“I am sickened by this,” said Councilmember Carroll Fife, during an impassioned speech in which she attacked the city administrator for dragging his feet. “This is an emergency. Displaced residents in District 3 need a place to go. They need to understand what is available and we need urgent action taken now.”

The vote comes as authorities are in the process of dismantling a massive West Oakland encampment that stretches along Wood Street and into vacant land owned by Caltrans. Fife initially proposed immediately turning 8 unused acres of land at the nearby Army base into an emergency refuge for up to 300 people displaced from that encampment. But after Assistant City Attorney Ryan Richardson said the plan wasn’t legally sound, she settled for a more long-term solution that will come too late to help the Wood Street residents. Council members directed the city administrator’s office to come up with a plan to establish a “stable housing solution” on the site — an undertaking that could take more than a year.

“Quite frankly, I have no confidence that anything will change,” Fife said. “But if this is a step…to getting us to move forward, I’m willing to take that action.”

It’s the latest episode in an ongoing controversy surrounding the Wood Street encampment — one of the largest homeless camps in the Bay Area. The camp has been the subject of lawsuits, a court order and a threat from Gov. Gavin Newsom, and has been the site of numerous fires that shut down traffic on the Interstate 880 and 80 overpasses above.

City Council voted unanimously in May to look into turning the old Army base into a shelter for at least 1,000 unhoused people, but City Administrator Edward Reiskin quickly tried to pour cold water on the idea. The Army base is not a feasible place to house people — even temporarily — because it’s ground water and soil are contaminated with unsafe levels of toxins including kerosine, arsenic and diesel, he said. Reiskin also took issue with the potential cost of the project, which could range from $18 million per year to run an RV parking site, to $22.5 million per year to run a community of tiny homes for 1,000 people.

But Fife didn’t want to take no for an answer.

“While we understand the limitations identified by staff, we are stating that this emergency requires urgent action and we believe the identified concerns are not insurmountable but we need to have the courage and will to do what is necessary,” she wrote in a memo to other council members.

The last count, conducted at the beginning of this year, tallied more than 5,000 homeless people living in Oakland — an increase of nearly a quarter from 2019.

Complicating the matter, the city attorney’s office brought up two other issues with using the Army base site as a homeless shelter. To start, City Council does not have the authority to order the city administrator to open the property up immediately to unhoused residents, said Richardson. Furthermore, residential use is prohibited at the site, per an agreement between the city and the federal government, which originally owned the property, he said.

Moving forward likely would require cleaning the toxins from the site and getting waivers from the state that would allow people to live there, city workers said.

Dozens of local residents and activists called into Tuesday’s meeting in support of Fife’s resolution, including multiple people living in the Wood Street encampment. A homeless woman described how, amid the dangers of the street, this encampment is where she feels safe, and where she’s found a family. An unhoused Army vet said he’s been kicked out of the area multiple times and told to go “anywhere but here.”

“We need a place to go,” said the vet, Alex, who didn’t give his last name.

Cee Gould, a UC Berkeley graduate who has volunteered at the Wood Street homeless camp, described watching Caltrans kick unhoused people off the site, dismantle their make-shift dwellings and destroy their property. One man was desperately scrambling to pump up the tires on his RV so he could drive it off the property, but couldn’t find an air pump in time, she said. Gould watched Caltrans carry away the RV on a forklift, the bedroom door swinging open, sheets and pillows still on the bed inside.

“I don’t know where he’s sleeping right now,” Gould said, her voice breaking.

Many people have lived at the Wood Street encampment for years and have built unsanctioned tiny homes, community kitchens, showers and other amenities on the property. That includes Cob on Wood, which built several whimsical cabins and an open-air community center for unhoused residents, and had hoped to relocate the structures onto the Army base property.

Caltrans plans to finish clearing the encampment by the beginning of November. The city intends to build tiny homes for up to 100 homeless residents nearby, but they won’t be ready until the end of the year or early next year.

Though he maintained the Army base is not a “common-sense” solution, Reiskin defended his department’s work on the homelessness crisis.

“No one is acting without urgency,” he said. “What we’re confronting is a scale that we’re struggling to address.”

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