Let’s Recognize California’s Informal Settlements as the Places They Are
“We are a settlement, not an encampment,” said Maven Carter Griffin, a longtime resident of the place commonly referred to as the Wood Street Encampment in Oakland, California. “This is a community built by the people, for the people.” Despite persistent threats of removal, people have been living in this area under Interstate 880, near the Union Pacific railroad tracks, since the Great Recession. In addition to dozens of tents and RVs, Wood Street is home to an array of hand-built structures, art installations, and community spaces. It’s also the site of a project called Cob on Wood that includes a shared kitchen, clinic, showers, free store, and even a performance stage, all built using the ancient cob building technique. With a population of more than 200 people spread across nearly 40 acres, it is a neighborhood.
Another large encampment, located a few miles across town in a median along E. 12th Street, is home to dozens of people living in handmade structures with walls, doors, and windows. Some have improvised shower fixtures and access to electricity; others are two stories tall. People have been living and building community together here since another settlement nearby was cleared by authorities in 2018. Early last year, a group of residents, activists, and volunteers from surrounding neighborhoods helped build a series of tiny homes and community gardens at one end of the site, which calls itself the Right to Exist Curbside Community.
Places like these, which can be found in varying forms throughout the state, should make clear two things that have been plain to some Californians for a long time. One: We live in and alongside informal settlements; that’s what the rest of the world calls such places, when it’s not calling them favelas, colonias populares, or slums. And two: Although they’re certainly precarious and often dangerous, these settlements can be meaningful sites of community, stability, and home to the people who live in them.
There are fundamental differences between sleeping on the sidewalk and living in a dense group of people in a fixed location where residents have shelter, personal property, and a sense of community. That difference is the significance of place, and it is time we recognized it. We know that place-based community is important for everything from an individual sense of belonging to the collective capacity for empowerment, resilience, and well-being. Research has likewise shown how the destruction of physical places can fracture social support networks and upend lives. From urban renewal to gentrification and eviction, displacement is harmful because places matter to people.
This is no less true for the unhoused, many of whom are especially vulnerable to upheaval. Indeed, these people have more to gain than most from some sense of stability, security, and community.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many of my unhoused neighbors over the last several years at sites like these. Their lives are very hard. The places they live are always in flux, with fires, city cleanups, and residents coming and going. But many of them have lived on the same piece of public land for many months, even years, and often they’ve done so alongside others, as neighbors. The settlements can be dangerous, but residents look out for each other, share food and borrow supplies, maintain the sites, hang out, and enjoy each other’s company.
It’s also a mistake to see these places simply as signs of poverty and disorder. Curbside settlements are unquestionably symptoms of structural inequality and systemic neglect, but they are also rational responses to these conditions. They’re evidence of people making do—innovating, in fact—in the face of a failure by the rest of us to do anything about the unsheltered and housing affordability.
The point is not that we should preserve living conditions that no one should have to accept. To be sure, aspects of informal settlements like these can be awful, almost unlivable. We must work to lift everyone off the streets and out of poverty—but we must also, in the meantime, recognize and defend the communities of place that do exist. We must understand that what has been built was intentional and is often meaningful, and may in fact be preferable to residents than some alternatives. For many, to be sure, it is preferable to further displacement.
As cities like Oakland consider changes to the way they police their residents and regulate homelessness, politicians and planners should remember that the residents of these settlements have been working to address their own conditions in the absence of sufficient response from local or state officials. Once we recognize large encampments as meaningful, place-based communities, we might think differently about how to incorporate their residents’ needs, priorities, and wishes when addressing the issue of the unhoused. We might look to planners and activists in other cities around the world with more experience learning to understand and manage informal settlements, too.
Oakland’s recent Encampment Management Policy—declaring huge swaths of the city off limits for setting up tents—is wrongheaded, but may actually suggest a narrow path forward in the slivers of urban space deemed not too “sensitive” for people to live outdoors in. Now the City Council is piloting a program in which certain “co-governed” encampments will be allowed to exist, with greater self-determination and shelters, services, and amenities provided by the city, allowing for both common gathering areas and customizable private spaces. An explicit goal is keeping communities together. This is a foundational step.
Might some of California’s informal settlements ever be allowed a degree of stability and persistence, perhaps with residents supported in securing and improving what they’ve built themselves and provided the basic services that should come with urban citizenship? The obstacles—political, cultural, and economic—are many. But until we are ready and willing to truly house everyone, simply tearing down informal settlements helps no one. We can, and should, start by recognizing them as the authentic places that they are.
All photographs by the author.