The ground was still charred and covered with rubbish.
Box springs, once supporting plush couches, were naked to the frame. Bits of former treasure — art canvases, stuffed animals, giant planters — were melted and deformed.
The Oakland, Calif., encampment's unhoused residents, victims of a massive arson fire that threatened their makeshift homes and their lives less than 24 hours earlier, had reason to feel as scorched as their surroundings.
Instead, they were already rebuilding, a process that for most of them had long been a staple of life outside of America's safety net.
Residents Monte and Theo set to work in the area where the encampment's pavilion had been, propping up a ladder and resurrecting a new fabric canopy to remake — at least in symbolic spirit — the community's integral gathering place.
I had arrived at Wood Street two months earlier, pulling onto a dirt road at the edge of West Oakland. Most of the camp, dubbed Wood Street Commons by residents (Instagram: @WoodStreetCommons; woodstreetcommons.com), unfolded within chain-link fences that line the actual street by that name. RVs and tents and handmade structures sprawled beneath the winding I-880 overpasses and formed a community atop dirt lots and hills of dumped materials that over time had sprouted with Pampas grasses and wild fennel.
Mountains of trash, rusted husks of old cars and overflown porta-potties suggested poverty and neglect, but beneath the surface, evidence of rich community, craftsmanship and pride emerged. Some of the art-covered shelters were impressively constructed, with tiled floors, multiple rooms, even chimneys.
In the middle of the camp, a canopy-laden stage stood as the centerpiece of a pavilion space that was filled with secondhand furniture and often hosted live music, work projects and social events that included housed neighbors and grassroots organizations.
The realities of hardship and resource scarcity were clear in the daily challenges and acute crises that became as familiar as they were devastating. But as I discovered over four months spent living at the camp, Wood Street Commons wasn't simply a place of survival. While some members wanted stable housing and couldn't get it, many rejected the states' proposals and instead preferred to stay, collaborating with the outside community to create a refuge for the vulnerable while developing plans to improve their surroundings.
In an era of hand-wringing about solutions for homelessness, this was a small-scale example of how outside-the-box thinking could actually work. Not only were the residents' ideas cheaper and more immediately feasible than those often devised in government offices — but they actually took into account the needs and desires of the folks at the heart of the problem, and had managed to garner some voluntary, hands-on support.
"You can't do it from the outside," Theo said. "We welcome the collaboration of our housed partners, but the initiative has to come from within our own ranks."
Wood Street's first residents arrived about six years ago, after being pushed here from other parts of the city by officials. As housing prices rose, more came, and over time the encampment's population grew to a couple hundred.
Many wind up here exhausted — by mental health care systems that fail their most vulnerable, by discrimination against those with prison resumes, by abstinence-only approaches to addiction and, most greatly, by the lack of affordable housing opportunities that include reasonable individuality, independence and dignity.
Living off the grid comes with massive challenges — executing basic tasks is arduous, and vulnerability to climate and other threats is high. The police rarely respond; when they do, it's often with force. The night before the blaze, residents called both the police and a crisis helpline, citing concerns about an individual setting small fires with promises for more. No one came.
But exiting a state of homelessness is complicated, and is often characterized by solutions that are either paternalistic, insensitive or both. In Oakland, there are approximately 2,400 shelter and transitional housing beds for over 4,000 people without homes (per last count, in 2019), though many folks eschew facilities they say are dangerous, humiliating and actually suppress job opportunities.
Many say the costly "tiny home" shed trend isn't much better, with residents inhabiting small, cookie-cutter spaces, sometimes shared with a stranger, within sterile, rule-filled environments. The wait for federally assisted housing, meanwhile, can extend up to five years.
In the last three years, California has spent $13 billion trying to address homelessness. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz just proposed that 16% of a new $2.7 billion jobs-and-projects bill be allocated to putting houseless individuals in homes.
Yet these costly efforts have often failed at the simplest of goals: being more attractive than the alternative. Nationwide, homelessness rose each year from 2016 through 2019, and post-pandemic figures are expected to soar.
Ironically, Oakland, as it continues encampment sweeps, wants to displace this community in order to build a housing complex, of which a small percentage of units would be considered "affordable."
Wood Street Commons has other ideas — namely, a land trust that would allow residents to stay where they are, with state funds that would otherwise be used to build more expensive, labor-intensive housing redirected to upgrade current encampment structures, create communal resources like shared kitchens and bathrooms and improve safety and hygiene.
For many, the camp has become a place where people can help each other and coexist, where they feel accepted and understood and able to progress at their own pace.
"I came here to kill myself," Monte told me. Six years ago, after dealing with the trauma of four family members passing, including a brother who was killed by Oakland police, he had slipped into depression and drug use.
"But instead, I found community," he said. "I found love. I found hope."
Commons residents have authored remarkable progress toward their goals, developing weekly meetings and a community vetting process and drawing city officials to meet with them on Wood Street turf — sessions that jump-started radical dialogue and helped gain resources such as trash receptacles.
Perhaps most meaningful are the ties they've forged with the outside community, both with grassroots organizations that fill water tanks, build tiny homes and instigate social events, and with individual housed neighbors who regularly join them for cleanup and construction projects, and often stay to hang afterward. Volunteers collaborated to build the pavilion, where residents began weekly open-mic nights, and have since hosted parties that folks from the neighborhood attended. The result has been collective function that belies many big-money efforts.
Of course, Wood Street has its detractors as well — a neighborhood council, for example, that eschews the idea that these unhoused individuals, with histories that may include bad choices, should get to direct their own fates. Residents say this attitude only widens the divide and ignores tangible paths forward.
"If you don't like it, change the channel," said Manahz, another resident. "Because this is happening. And to try to extinguish it is kind of silly."
The day after the fire, amid new crises and old struggles, Commons residents hoisted the new canopy. At the top of the ladder, Monte did a handstand and grinned. The smoke had cleared; they would carry on.
Amelia Rayno is an independent organizer and journalist covering social issues. She is a former Star Tribune reporter. At instagram.com/ameliarayno.