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Can Sanctioned Encampments Improve A Neighborhood's Quality Of Life?

Wood St., September 2016. (Google)
By Walter Thompson - Published on January 12, 2017.

West Oakland’s Clawson district is coming up.

Wood Street, the neighborhood’s western edge, combines trucking and envelope-making with old Victorians and new lofts. Around the corner, a cup of hot chai is available for $4.50.

Station House, a 171-unit luxury development currently under construction, is already one-third sold, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The area's also home to one of Oakland’s largest homeless encampments; between Grand Ave. and 26th St., anywhere from fifty to one hundred people live in vehicles, tents, and roughly constructed shelters.

A city bulldozer pauses after clearing material from a fire at the camp.

According to housed Clawson resident Ellie Casson, neighbors view homelessness as “a really complicated issue that will take complicated, long-term solutions,” but a good portion are also frustrated with some of the quality-of-life issues the encampment engenders.

On New Years Day, a fire at the encampment was visible blocks away. Structures, possessions and dogs belonging to camp residents can impede the roadway, forcing drivers to slow down as they traverse potholes and railroad tracks. Already a favorite spot for illegal dumping, the pop-up village has worsened Wood Street’s sanitation issues.

Nearly three-quarters of the city's unhoused residents live in District 3, which includes West Oakland and downtown, “so it’s an issue that we see and feel on a regular basis,” said Casson.

In response, Casson joined former Councilmember Nancy Nadel and other neighbors to create Housing Our Unhoused Residents (HOUR), a working group of Clawson neighbors who “try to push the city and county when it needs to be pushed.”

Parts of the Wood St. encampment extend into the roadway. | Photo: Walter Thompson

Casson said HOUR members sometimes provide people living at the camp with supplies and food, but “where we’ve focused so far is in trying to link up with all of the actors who are working on this issue in our neighborhood."

HOUR co-founder Nadel, who also owns The Oakland Chocolate Co. near the Emeryville border, said camps along Wood St. have been a presence for several years.

Sanitation issues near one former encampment on Wood St. were so dire that the local rat population boomed, said Nadel. “If I wanted to bicycle to work, there were lots of rats always crossing the road,” she recalled. “Many of us are making food; it didn’t feel like a healthy environment at all.”

“Some of the folks would pull down their pants right in front of our customers and relieve themselves,” she said. “It felt like the Middle Ages, there was no regular garbage pickup, no toilets.”

Google Maps

Last year, HOUR helped garner neighborhood support for Compassionate Communities, a pilot program promoted by D3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney to transition people from encampments into permanent housing. To create a healthier environment, the program provides washing stations, trash pickup, needle exchange and a stepped-up police presence.

Via email, McElhaney said she advocated for the program “to address a growing public health crisis with respect to the large number of individuals living in tents and vehicles throughout the town.” 

Last year, Mayor Libby Schaaf and a majority of the City Council voted to partially fund Compassionate Communities, but granted just $190,000 of a $400,000 request. 

An encampment at 35th St. and Magnolia on the border with Emeryville was selected. Because the camp had “several resident-leaders,” it was identified as a good prospect for the pilot, said City of Oakland Policy Analyst Alexander Marqusee, according to The E'ville Eye.

With limited funding, the Wood St. camp wasn’t suitable for a pilot program, said McElheney. “There is only one pilot site and in order to test new protocols and systems that site selected for the pilot needed to be under 50 residents,” she explained. “Wood Street is considerably larger.”

The 35th & Magnolia encampment opened in October and is slated to close on March 31. Under the pilot, residents who move out of the camp may not be replaced by newcomers, but Casson said she wasn’t certain that was being enforced.

McElhaney said initial findings from the pilot are “promising,” and that approximately one-third of residents at the 35th & Magnolia encampment have been moved into “appropriate” housing. “The next 3 months will be very telling.”

The sanctioned encampment at 35th & Magnolia is not meeting the community's needs, said Nadel. Separately, she and Casson said they're open to trying sanctioned encampments elsewhere in Clawson.  

"I think it’s appalling that there’s no similar action being taken on Wood St.," said Nadel. "The city has a 2-acre parcel right above the train station that’s maybe a block or two away where they could get those folks off the street and get them toilets, showers and garbage service."

"There’s no perfect place" to create a new encampment in the middle of a residential neighborhood, Nadel acknowledged, "but our highest priority ought to be the people."

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