.Homeless Crackdown by Caltrans Sparks Dialogue in Berkeley

Weekly "cleanings" by transportation agency draw a comparison to whack-a-mole, causing the city to confront its encampment problem under scrutiny from critics.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Patricia Moore sat on the dirty leather seat of her electric wheelchair, holding her dog Ebony’s leash. She had just crawled out of her current home — a red tent erected on a patch of dusty Caltrans land under I-80 at University Avenue in Berkeley. Cars sped by on the freeway 30 feet away and Caltrans workers roamed the area picking up garbage while officers from the California Highway Patrol stood by.

Moore’s was one of the area’s few remaining tents. Most of her neighbors had moved temporarily to an alley across the street — out of the way of the workers and officers, who probably would have made them leave. Moore didn’t migrate that day because she was exhausted and the officers let her stay. But she recently had to move back and forth between the alley and the Caltrans land six times in three weeks to accommodate the transportation agency’s weekly cleanup campaigns. Because she hasn’t been able to walk since a car hit her bicycle six years ago, moving all her possessions each week before Caltrans workers show up poses a hardship.

“Each time, I lose a lot of stuff because I can’t move everything,” Moore said. “And if my wheelchair battery dies, I’m stuck.”

In early September, Caltrans accelerated it periodic cleanups of this and at least one other local homeless encampment to once a week. Although the agency hasn’t evicted camp residents, it has nonetheless found a way to make their lives more difficult by forcing them to move all their belongings each week at risk of confiscation.

Encampment resident Frank Alehandro Myers says he loses things whenever he’s forced to move, even if they are not directly taken from him. “Real talk, it’s been like Hurricane Katrina out here every week,” Myers said. “I’ve been downsizing every time every time I have to move.”

Residents say Caltrans doesn’t actually pick up much trash, and that these cleanups are really just an excuse for harassment. Near the end of the agency’s Sep. 17 cleanup, the area was still littered with bottles and plastic bags.

Homeless residents in Berkeley and Oakland have sued Caltrans for taking valuable personal belongings during actual evictions of homeless encampments. Moore is one plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the agency. The complaint describes a 2016 incident in which Caltrans workers allegedly ripped tent poles from Moore’s hands and threw them into a garbage truck while other employees destroyed her tent. At the time, she was living at an encampment on Gilman Street in Berkeley. There have been multiple other lawsuits against Caltrans for similar reasons, going back to Kincaid v. City of Fresno, a 2006 case in which the city and Caltrans had to pay a $2.35 million settlement for taking homeless peoples’ possessions.

The East Bay Express sought comment from Caltrans for this article. Agency representatives said they would answer questions via email, but they never responded, despite multiple reminders. Berkeley city manager Dee Williams-Ridley and City Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani say they hope to meet with Caltrans employees soon to discuss ways to get more outreach to homeless people living on Caltrans land in Berkeley before cleanups.

Although the temporary evictions were executed by the transportation agency and not the city of Berkeley, they have sparked a debate in the city about treatment of the homeless. Encampment residents say that during some of the cleanups, Berkeley Police Department officers told people that they couldn’t move onto city property such as the alley, which is why they have shuttled back and forth between the two parcels.

Under a 2019 court ruling, such practices could be a thing of the past. The city’s policies toward homeless encampments are now informed by Martin v. Boise, an April ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that said cities cannot ban camping in an area that doesn’t offer other adequate shelter. In the case, which the Idaho city has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that prosecuting people for camping on public land violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment when the people living there have nowhere else to go.

But at the same time, Williams-Ridley says the city has to address health and safety concerns — like the trash, excrement and crime often found at encampments. Homeless encampment policy is now a focus of many city governments in the Bay Area and across the country, as homelessness increases drastically. There are currently around 1,000 people in Berkeley and 8,000 people in Alameda County who are homeless at any given time — nearly twice the number from ten years ago. Berkeley’s homeless population is growing at a steady rate of 10 percent every year.

But advocates say that Caltrans and City of Berkeley policies toward homeless people, especially the recent encampment evictions, cause unnecessary trauma and loss of property. And at the beginning of September, two homeless men who lived near the encampments were hit by an Amtrak train and died.

“They’re just chasing them around the city,” said Andrea Henson, who started a campaign named “Where do we go?” in response to recent evictions. “It’s like whack-a-mole. They need to tell people where they can go, and provide porta-pottys, trash pickup and outreach.”

At a recent town hall meeting on homelessness hosted by Kesarwani, who represents District 1, where Moore lives, residents of the University Avenue encampments and homeless advocates echoed Henson’s criticisms of city policy. Many people called for porta pottys and dumpsters for homeless encampments, insisting that many health and safety issues could be solved if the city gave homeless people the means to safely dispose of their waste. “If you don’t have available bathrooms, you gotta go somewhere, honey,” Katherine Cody said to applause.

Williams-Ridley said the city relies on 311 calls from people complaining about conditions at an encampment to decide whether to enforce on them or not. Speakers at the council criticized the practice of using 311 calls to decide when to evict an encampment. They described how people who don’t want to take their trash to an approved disposal facility often illegally dump at places where homeless people live. Advocates say that this leads to 311 calls that lead to evictions of homeless people who were not responsible for the trash.

Michael Zint, the founder of First They Came for the Homeless, a protest group that birthed the intentional homeless encampment near the Here-There sign at the Berkeley-Oakland border, believes that evicting an encampment based on 311 calls about crime punishes a whole group of people for the actions of a few. “They’re stuck in the second grade where the teacher punishes the class for the actions of one student,” he said in an interview. “You don’t sweep an entire apartment building because there’s one criminal living there. You just go after the criminal.”

Besides current City of Berkeley services for homeless people, which include a coordinated entry program and nearly 300 shelter beds, the city has plans to create additional resources for the unhoused in the near future. The city also is taking steps to stop illegal dumping at homeless encampment sites.

“Council has approved security cameras, signage and increased fines to reduce illegal dumping,” Kesarwani said in an interview.

Berkeley has no plans right now to put out porta-pottys or dumpsters specifically for encampments, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko, although he said that that the city is attempting to put out more porta-pottys for public use, including in areas where homeless encampments exist.

Williams-Ridley is also looking for at least one safe parking site for recreational vehicles in Berkeley to be opened before the end of the year, similar to the Bay Area’s first safe parking site for mobile home dwellers, which opened in Oakland in June. The site will have at least 20 spots for mobile homes and will have security, restrooms, and handwashing stations. Bay Area Community Services has been speaking to people living in RVs in West Berkeley to determine who should be prioritized and invited to live in a safe parking zone. Williams-Ridley and Kesarwani say that they are also pushing to find a county site that could house many more RVs.

Measure P bonds approved by Berkeley voters last year freed up 1.5 million dollars, some of which can be used for homeless services. Measure O, which was also passed last year, allows the city of Berkeley to issue up to $135 million in bonds for affordable housing, which could wind up becoming the homes of some of Berkeley’s homeless.

But there are 150 to 200 RVs in West Berkeley alone, and Kesarwani says that it would take $2 billion to permanently house all of Berkeley’s homeless.

People like Katherine Cody and Patricia Moore feel that help isn’t coming soon enough. They’re still facing weekly evictions from Caltrans, and although the City of Berkeley recently stopped enforcing at the University Avenue sites to let residents temporarily keep their belongings on city land during cleanups, the constant moving is exhausting them.

“They’re not going to build a bunch of low income housing tomorrow,” advocate Henson said. “They need to deal with this today.”


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