Willie Johnson has a job, but for five months he’s lived in a homeless encampment on a private lot on Wood Street in West Oakland.
“I can’t afford to live in the city I was born in,” Johnson, 60, told me one afternoon last month.
He works as a janitor, waking at 5 a.m. to sweep and scrub floors at Trader Joe’s, he said. I asked him where in Oakland he was from. His response made my shoulders droop.
“West Oakland — born and raised,” he said.
I’ve met far too many people at the Wood Street encampment — and at encampments on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Mosswood Park and Northgate Avenue — who were born and raised in West Oakland.
Now Johnson, who lives in a camper trailer, has to find a temporary place to live, because on Tuesday the city of Oakland began clearing the property by first towing the abandoned cars, trucks and RVs that people weren’t living in. Like Johnson, most people on the site slept in mobile homes, and the city is also forcing them to leave the property. There were more than 130 cars, RVs, trucks and buses on the property, many of them inoperable.
The 4.5-acre lot is being transformed into what city officials describe as a safe parking site that will serve 60 or more mobile homes. The city is towing the abandoned and inoperable vehicles and Gamechanger LLC, the property owner, is handling the cleanup before leasing the lot to the city. But before Gamechanger can remove the accumulated garbage, grade the ground and put up a fence, all the vehicles have to be moved. City officials say people can return once the work is finished.
Crews started with the dented and charred car frames that had “Take Me” spray painted on fenders and hoods. As a tow truck dragged a tire-less car stripped to the rotors through the sandy lot, it sounded like a shopping cart full of cans being pushed down the street in the predawn hours of recycling day. When the body of a rusted truck bed crumpled as it was towed, it sent rats hiding within the frame scurrying for new cover.
I’ve been spending time at the Wood Street lot for more than a year. It was around this time last year that residents rallied against being forced to leave. More than a dozen protested Tuesday.
The California Highway Patrol removed vehicles identified as stolen a few weeks ago. On Monday, about a dozen Oakland Police Department officers walked the site with homeless outreach workers to tell folks they should move their mobile homes, if they were in working condition, to the street where they could park until the lot reopened. If occupied mobile homes were inoperable, the city offered to tow them outside the lot for the occupants.
Kelly Thompson, a resident for about a year, towed the RV that Ieshia Moss bought for $300 from Metal Bob, a handyman and camp resident whose thick fingers look like they’re covered in charcoal. Moss, 34, has lived in or near the encampment for almost six years. Her mom also lived with her — until she died in March.
“This is the only place we can come and live like normal people,” Moss, an East Oakland native, said.
Oakland’s homeless population rose 47% between 2017 and 2019, according to the one-night street count that’s conducted every two years. The count also showed that of Oakland’s estimated 4,000 homeless people, about 1,400 live in vehicles. Two years ago, there were about 600 people living in their cars and RVs.
In 2019, Oakland made up nearly half of Alameda County’s overall homeless population, my colleagues Sarah Ravani and Joaquin Palomino reported in August.
Black homelessness in the county decreased by 2%. Now, to make your shoulders droop: 47% of homeless people in the county are black, even though black people account for just 11% of the county’s population.
“They done took the area from the African Americans,” said Johnson, who is black. He moved before the police arrived Tuesday. “All my life, I’ve known West Oakland to be a black community.”
Blacks who migrated from the South to work in Oakland’s shipyards during World War II settled in West Oakland. It was one of the few areas in the city where black people, who were subjected to housing and school segregation and discriminatory lending policies, could find affordable housing.
The long-starved slice of the city — the first grocery store in decades opened in June! — is now a housing hotbed. You might’ve noticed that Oakland is in the midst of a building boom. In August, my colleague J.K. Dineen reported that there were 9,304 total units under construction in Oakland, but less than 7% — a total of 628 — were subsidized affordable projects.
“This economy that is producing high-rises is also pushing affliction on poor and middle class people,” said Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
Oakland, which has budgeted $87.4 million for homeless services and affordable housing over the next two years, has an estimated 60 encampments. That’s how camps like Wood Street sprout and where things — stolen cars, abandoned animals, illegally dumped garbage, a pot grow hidden behind large plywood sheets, and famished souls — show up.
Pat Smith, a real estate attorney for Smith LLP, the Oakland law firm that represents Gamechanger, estimated it will cost the company more than $250,000 to clean and grade the property. In an interview last week, she said the owner hopes to have the property turned over by the end of the month. Smith said the initial lease term is for 18 months, but it includes options for extensions.
“Since there’s the need out there and the property is there, it seems to fit the purpose,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to be a vast improvement over what (the encampment) dealt with last rainy season.”
Gamechanger isn’t charging the city to lease the lot, but Joe DeVries, an assistant city administrator, told me it will cost the city around $400,000 to get the site up and running. The cost includes installing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment.
Oakland’s efforts to curb homelessness — the Tuff Sheds, the safe parking and rapid re-housing sites — aren’t coming close to managing the misery. For every person who gets housed in the county, two more people become homeless, Gibson McElhaney said.
Even after meeting with the city and being told they would be allowed to come back, and that their mobile homes wouldn’t be targeted for towing on the street, many people at the encampment I’ve talked to don’t trust the city to keep its promises.
“They’re making it harder,” said Mona Choyce, who has been homeless since 2017. “They’re not for us. If they were for us, why would you come and tow our vehicles? We stay in our vehicles.”
Choyce, 41, is from West Oakland.
“Born and raised,” she said.