Judge: Oakland can close Wood Street encampment

When U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick issued a temporary restraining order on Jan. 6 forbidding the city of Oakland from closing a homeless encampment at 1707 Wood St., he told the parties he suspected the order would be "brief."

On Monday, six weeks later, he proved his suspicions correct and dissolved the TRO, authorizing the city to clear the site and begin to ready the property for an affordable housing development.

The order is the latest in a long-running dispute over a homeless camp that once covered 40 acres under the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland where between 200 and 300 people lived in vehicles, RVs, tents and other makeshift structures. 

The land was mostly owned by Caltrans, and after a history of fires on the site and concerns about the proximity of a nearby oxygen production plant, on July 15, 2022 the agency gave residents 5-days' notice to clear the site. 

Three days later, a group of encampment residents sued Caltrans, the governor, Oakland and a number of public officials in federal court, alleging that their forced removal from the site would constitute an unconstitutional "state created danger" and place them at a high degree of risk because there were not adequate shelter options for them in Oakland.

That case was assigned to Judge Orrick, who expressed concern about the short notice and lack of shelter options. 

He issued a temporary injunction on July 19, 2022.

That injunction was dissolved in phases, beginning in August of 2022, giving residents more time to find other alternatives. The city of Oakland agreed to assist residents on identifying their options. 

In his written decision dissolving the injunction, Orrick recognized that even with the additional time and the help of the city, there were going to be people who would experience serious hardship. 

He concluded his decision with "I recognize that no party is happy with this order. But the time for finger-pointing and disclaimers of responsibility is over. The plaintiffs and all living at the Wood Street encampment must make immediate plans to move."

Over the next several weeks, the Caltrans site was cleaned and cleared and the residents moved to other locations and situations. A number of residents relocated to a two-acre parcel at 1707 Wood St. owned by Oakland. 

That site reportedly contained a communal area used to organize donations and cook group meals several nights a week as well as "pop-up clinics, regular open mics, and other community town hall events." 

There were more than 40 people living there on Dec. 22, when Oakland gave notice that it intended to evict all persons on Jan. 9 to clear the site for the development of low-income housing. 

A resident of the 1707 Wood site and a local advocate then brought suit against Oakland in federal court asking that the city be enjoined. 

The complaint stated, "The residents of 1707 Wood Street have nowhere to go. The shelters are full. The streets of Oakland are already full of unhoused persons, many of whom were previously evicted from their encampments."

According to "point-in-time" counts cited in their pleadings, there were 5,055 individuals in Oakland experiencing homelessness, of which 3,347 were unsheltered. 

The plaintiffs asked that the eviction be enjoined because of a lack of shelter beds, heavy winter rains, and the continued prevalence of Covid and other viruses. They alleged that there were then 42 residents living at the site and only 27 shelter beds in the entire city. They said the city had not fulfilled promises made in connection with the prior lawsuit.

While the city was working to open a safe parking area for RVs that would accommodate 29 vehicles and a "cabin community" with 31 beds, neither site was yet ready for occupancy.

As in the earlier case, the plaintiffs argued, among other things, that the eviction would amount to an unconstitutional state-created danger. 

Orrick noted that while the U.S. constitution does not require the government to protect people from harm caused by third persons, there is an exception when the state "affirmatively places [a plaintiff] in danger by acting with deliberate indifference to a known or obvious danger."

He found that the plaintiffs raised at least a significant question about whether the doctrine applied to them and concluded that under all the circumstances, including the weather and the ongoing "tripledemic," it was appropriate to issue the TRO, though he telegraphed that the pause on eviction would not be unlimited. 

He said, "This TRO is not a long-term prohibition on Oakland's actions but rather a stopgap to prevent violation of constitutional rights that are likely to result from the combination of the state-of-emergency weather situation and the failure to provide alternative shelter." 

In the six weeks following the TRO, the city advanced the RV park and cabin community projects to a point where it represented to the judge that it would be able to "hold" enough spots to accommodate all the 1707 Wood Street residents who wanted to be sheltered. 

Under these circumstances, the judge found that the standards for the TRO were no longer met. He dissolved the TRO immediately, conditioned on the city's representations that there would be sufficient shelter options for the displaced residents.

The city's lawyers had no comment on the ruling. Plaintiffs' lawyers did not respond to an inquiry as to whether they would seek to appeal or otherwise challenge the determination.