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Newsom taps Caltrans to help clear Oakland encampments

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After sending more than a hundred California Highway Patrol officers to Oakland earlier this year for a fleeting crackdown on crime, Gov. Gavin Newsom is tapping Caltrans to help clear homeless camps near major freeways throughout the city.

The encampment effort is part of the state transportation agency’s new “10-Point Action Plan” aimed at improving Oakland’s highway corridors. It’s among the latest examples of Newsom stepping in to respond to Oakland residents’ exasperation over homelessness and a post-pandemic wave of robberies, shootings and other crimes.

“Oakland is a beautiful city, and we must ensure its neighborhoods are clean and safe,” Newsom said in a recent statement announcing the plan, which also includes trash pick-up and graffiti removal.

In February, Newsom deployed 120 CHP officers to Oakland for a five-day surge, an effort that led to dozens of arrests but which some community leaders dismissed as a political ploy that ignored the root causes of crime. On Friday, Newsom announced the CHP would help install 480 cameras along freeways across the city to track vehicles linked to crimes.

Following the Caltrans announcement, the Oakland City Council on March 19 approved an initial agreement with the transportation agency to help the city clear encampments over the next two years and move displaced homeless people into shelters.

For years, Caltrans has worked with local officials to clear encampments near highways and on state property across the Bay Area from San Jose to Santa Rosa. But in a report outlining the new agreement, Oakland Public Works Director G. Harold Duffey made clear his city needs more help.

“The city does not have the resources to relocate all encampments that present health and safety threats,” Duffey wrote. According to the latest available data, Oakland had an estimated 5,055 homeless residents in 2022.

Oakland is set to start the new partnership by working with Caltrans to clear more than a dozen RVs and cars parked along Leet Drive at Hegenberger Road, in a semi-industrial neighborhood between Interstate 880 and Oakland International Airport. The city posted pink flyers at the camp alerting unhoused residents that public works crews will begin removing the “illegal encampment” on Tuesday.

Jessica Fountaine, who lives in a trailer on Leet Drive, doesn’t know where she’ll head next when the work crews arrive. Fountaine moved there after being cleared out of camps at Wood Street in West Oakland, including a sprawling encampment with hundreds of people on Caltrans property, which the agency finished dismantling last year.

Jessica Fountaine watches a friend's RV at a homeless encampment along Leet Drive off Hegenberger Road in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Caltrans has agreed to help Oakland clear homeless camps by freeways and the camp will be cleared on April 2. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Jessica Fountaine watches a friend’s RV at a homeless encampment along Leet Drive off Hegenberger Road in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Caltrans has agreed to help Oakland clear homeless camps by freeways and the camp will be cleared on April 2. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Outreach workers recently helped her reserve a temporary tiny home cabin, Fountaine said, but she’s still working through the necessary paperwork to move in. If the city were to offer her a bed in a group shelter in the meantime, Fountaine said she’d turn it down. A 35-year-old licensed nail technician with strawberry blonde hair who hopes to open a beauty bar, Fountaine struggles with anxiety and depression after years on the street, she said, making even the thought of living in a communal setting “triggering.”

“Constant sweeps have affected my way of living to where I don’t trust people,” Fountaine said.

To move more people indoors, Newsom created a $750 million program in 2021 to help cities such as Oakland clear encampments and add shelter beds. The year before, Newsom spearheaded the state’s multibillion-dollar Homekey program to create new homeless housing and shelters. He recently visited Oakland to announce $14 million in Homekey funding for a new supportive housing project in the city.

Even as Oakland received tens of millions of dollars from the two programs, the city’s homeless population spiked in the wake of the economic upheaval of the pandemic — jumping 24% from 2019 to 2022, with the largest increase among people living in RVs and cars.

Oakland, like all large Bay Area cities, lacks enough shelter beds for all of its homeless residents. And with a severe shortage of affordable and supportive housing, most homeless people who pass through the temporary shelters fail to find lasting homes.

Under a 2018 federal court ruling, local governments and public agencies across the West Coast are expected to offer homeless people shelter before clearing camps. Although the Supreme Court has agreed to review the decision next month, the lack of beds could slow Caltrans’ encampment efforts.

Caltrans said it’s exploring leasing an agency-owned property off Mandela Parkway as a new city-run shelter.

“Our objective is to prevent the return of homeless individuals to these areas and to ensure they receive the necessary continuum of care,” the agency said in a statement.

Megan Ruskofsky-Zuccato sat in a friend’s RV on Leet Drive, typing on a sticker-covered laptop to fill out an online application for affordable housing. The 29-year-old Oakland native said her trailer was recently towed while she was at a methadone clinic. And with the camp clearing just a few days away, she was unsure of her next move.

To get into a shelter, Ruskofsky-Zuccato worried she’d have to give up her three dogs, a pit bull and two Belgian Shepherd mixes named Mamas, Papas and Baby Girl. “They’re like therapy dogs,” she said. “Each one of my dogs I rescued or got as a baby.”

“I couldn’t give them up,” she said, choking back tears.

Megan Ruskofsky-Zuccato cries at the thought of having to give up her three dogs inside an RV at a homeless encampment along Leet Drive off Hegenberger Road in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Caltrans has agreed to help Oakland clear homeless camps by freeways and the camp will be cleared on April 2. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Megan Ruskofsky-Zuccato cries at the thought of having to give up her three dogs inside an RV at a homeless encampment along Leet Drive off Hegenberger Road in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Caltrans has agreed to help Oakland clear homeless camps by freeways and the camp will be cleared on April 2. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 



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