Home U.S. News Homeless Camps Are Being Cleared in California. What Happens Next?

Homeless Camps Are Being Cleared in California. What Happens Next?

Homeless Camps Are Being Cleared in California. What Happens Next?

John Janosko recently moved into a tiny cabin in Oakland, Calif., after the city and the state shut down the sprawling homeless encampment where he had resided for most of the past eight years. City officials consider the shed-size unit — with a bed, a folding chair, a desk and a mini fridge — a vast improvement over the makeshift shelters that once sat beneath a freeway.

That’s not how Mr. Janosko sees it.

He says he does not have keys to the free cabin that the city has temporarily assigned him. Nor is he allowed visitors. He had to get rid of most of his belongings and says he has barely slept there.

“It’s not my home,” said Mr. Janosko, 54, who lost his job as a chef, and then his apartment, about a decade ago. “My home was down the street.”

He lived in a structure of recycled wood and corrugated iron attached to a trailer, ensconced in a thicket of other such structures and vehicles. Stretching several blocks in West Oakland, the Wood Street encampment became a community for those who had little else. More than 200 people lived there until California leaders — and Gov. Gavin Newsom in particular — decided last year to clear the camp because of its hazardous debris and fires.

The evictions have brought into sharp relief one of the most intractable challenges for American cities, particularly those in California. As homelessness has surged, more people have congregated in large encampments for some semblance of security and stability. But such sites are often unsanitary and dangerous, exhausting neighbors and the owners of nearby businesses.

What happens after the closure of Wood Street and other camps in California will serve as the latest test of how effectively the state is addressing homelessness. Nearly half of the nation’s unsheltered population — those who sleep on the streets, in tents, in cars or in other places not intended for human habitation — resides in California, according to last year’s federal tally of homelessness. The state makes up about12 percent of the country’s overall population.

In California, Democratic leaders who previously tolerated homeless camps have lost their patience for the tent villages and blocks of trailers that proliferated during the pandemic.

Governor Newsom has helped clear homeless camps himself and has told mayors he was trying to set an example. San Diego recently banned encampments on public property. And Karen Bass, the mayor of Los Angeles, has moved more than 14,000 homeless people into temporary housing since taking office in December, her office said last month.

In Oakland, those in desperate need of housing began moving to Wood Street nearly a decade ago, finding it a welcome refuge on the western edge of the city. Former residents said they had been sent there by the local authorities, who promised to leave them alone.

Soon, the encampment mushroomed into one of the state’s largest. Residents installed solar panels, hot-water showers, a community garden, a kitchen, a clothing closet and, with help from community volunteers, tiny homes. Some traded goods and electronics; others did each other’s hair and nails. They had Christmas and birthday parties.

Some also took drugs together, and when campers overdosed, their neighbors tried to help them, former residents said. There also were thefts, shootings and, according to the California Department of Transportation, which owns a portion of the land, more than 200 fires, including one that turned fatal.

Last year, Governor Newsom had seen enough. Despite protests by Wood Street residents and after a prolonged legal battle, the state Transportation Department eventually began evicting people last fall, citing the “serious safety risks.” This spring, city officials forced out the remaining 70 residents.

All told, 95 people accepted offers of shelter from either Alameda County or the City of Oakland, according to the Transportation Department. Dozens of them went to community cabins and an R.V. camp run by the city. A handful of others set up new camps on public property near the Wood Street site.

Some, like Mr. Janosko, spend their days somewhere in between. Many don’t want another way station, and the temporary housing often comes with a six-month time limit. Others are reluctant to part with their belongings, as well as their community; they say that encampments provide them with both physical and emotional security, especially as a record number of homeless people die on America’s streets.

Outside the former encampment, displaced residents relocated a gazebo as a gathering point that they call the Wood Street Commons. There, they hold meetings with lawyers, and volunteers drop off sandwiches, medicine and clothes.

LeaJay Harper, 40, became homeless around a decade ago after losing her job at a nonprofit group. After the closure of Wood Street, she was living in her trailer in an R.V. camp about seven miles southeast. But she kept coming back.

“I started hanging out on Wood Street again,” she said, “just so I could be around people that love me.”

Community cabins and safe camping sites usually provide only temporary shelter, falling short of the permanent housing that is considered ideal. But they seem to be the best that California can do, with a severe housing shortage and high costs. Despite the state’s spending of more than $30 billion since 2019 on housing-related programs, the homeless population there has continued to grow.

“This is a very difficult population to serve, with very complex needs. And if we can bring someone inside even for a little bit, that’s a victory for that person,” said Jason Elliott, the deputy chief of staff for Governor Newsom. “We may not have permanent housing stick the first time, or the fourth time or the fifth time, but we’re going to keep trying.”

According to a September audit of Oakland’s homelessness services, close to half of the people housed in community cabins ended up back on the street in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

While temporary shelter may be better than nothing, it doesn’t solve the root problems, said Barbara DiPietro, the senior policy director for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. She noted that, sometimes, people would rather stay on the street because shelters were often so restrictive and, in some cases, unsafe.

“It’s like having a significant wound and being offered a Band-Aid,” she said. “Shelters are not home.”

But California leaders are under immense pressure to move people off the street, somehow, some way. A poll conducted in January found that 76 percent of likely voters said homelessness was a big problem in their part of the state.

In Oakland, residents living near Wood Street filed hundreds of complaints about the encampment, citing illegal dumping and people living in their vehicles. Some neighbors said the camp’s closure was long overdue.

“There was a community of people, but it was dangerous, it was dirty,” said Brandon Braunstein, a software engineer who lives near Wood Street and was walking his two dogs on a recent morning. “It wasn’t a safe environment for the neighborhood or for, in my opinion, the people that lived there.”

Still, Mr. Braunstein and other neighbors said they also worried about what would become of the encampment’s former residents and whether they would find a better place to live.

At the Wood Street Commons, a small group of former residents recently gathered to figure out how to reassemble their fragmented world. Some had shelter, others were still making do on the streets. All longed to maintain the community they once had.

But as they sat beneath the canopy, a city contractor in a down jacket approached and told them that it might eventually have to come down.

“It’s frustrating,” Mr. Janosko responded. “Where does the city think that people are going to go?”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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