Caltrans Homeless Encampment Clearings Prompt Controversy

The discussion regarding the solution to Berkeley’s homelessness crisis has resurfaced due to actions by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). There are numerous homeless encampments located throughout Berkeley, many of which are located under overpasses.

In September, the department cleared two homeless encampments in Berkeley by Sea Breeze Market and Interstate 80.

The undertaking was part of one of the dozens of routine cleanups conducted by Caltrans along California’s highways. The act has sparked pushback aimed at both Caltrans and the City of Berkeley for policies regarding where the homeless can lawfully reside.

One of the main concerns of the people living at these encampments and of homeless activists in Berkeley regarding the clearings is the lack of spaces in Berkeley for them to inhabit.

This is the inspiration behind the Where Do We Go? (WDG) campaign, which advocates for homeless people in Berkeley.

“I was talking to a Berkeley police officer, and the encampment residents kept saying, ‘Where do we go? If we can’t be on the Caltrans land, and we can’t be on the sidewalk, where do we go?’” said WDG organizer and advocate for the homeless Andrea Henson.

In response to the clearing by Caltrans, the WDG campaign held a march to the West Berkeley town hall homelessness meeting on October 22.

According to Henson, many homeless people in Berkeley are cleared off of city land and Caltrans land in a continuous loop. This leaves them with nowhere reliable and safe to go. “There’s only so much land and it’s all owned by Caltrans or the City of Berkeley … it’s just pushing people literally from one sidewalk to a piece of grass to another sidewalk, back and forth,” said Henson.

Homeless activists argue that this cycle overburdens already marginalized groups.   “Stop making the lives of the unhoused miserable. Being unhoused presents enough issues. We don’t need to kick people when they’re down,” said Berkeley City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila.

According to Henson, Caltrans gave residents notice prior to clearing the encampments, yet the residents did not know when or if Caltrans would show up. “Some residents have participated in civil disobedience. We had three women who refused to move during the clearing and they were not arrested,” said Henson.

Henson added that although residents were told that they had 90 days to reclaim any items left behind, Caltrans officials discarded many of these items on sight.

In response to this issue, Councilpersons Kate Harrison and Cheryl Davila will be presenting a proposal to the city council on October 15 for emergency outdoor shelters to be set up in Berkeley. These shelters would provide portable toilets, handwashing stations, durable tents, and trash pickup, among other resources. The shelters would also be surrounded by fencing and have a security team. A council vote must take place for the plan to move forward.

According to the proposal, there are currently 1,108 homeless people in Berkeley, 813 of whom are unsheltered. Moreover, according to Davila, about 250 families of students enrolled in Berkeley Unified School District are part of the homeless population in Berkeley. As a result, the shelter beds in Berkeley are completely filled almost every night, and the city has declared a shelter emergency.

According to Henson, public perception is a large contributing factor to the frequent clearings of homeless encampments in Berkeley. “When the three women stood up to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer in an act of civil disobedience, I was with two of them,” and according to Henson, the officer told the women: “‘Berkeley residents clap and cheer when we move you all. The mayor doesn’t want you here, the city council doesn’t want you here, why don’t you just move to Oakland?’”

Caltrans has been penalized in the past for clearing homeless encampments along state highways. A wrongful lawsuit has been filed against Caltrans for the death of Maurice Bigley, a homeless woman who was allegedly injured by a Caltrans employee driving a front loader during a routine clearing. The International Union of Operating Engineers filed a complaint against Caltrans, citing unsafe working conditions and inadequate training in injury and illness prevention with respect to the workers tasked with clearing the encampments. As of now, the City of Berkeley is deliberating over how to better support its homeless population. “We need to change the approach; what is being done isn’t working. We can and must do better,” said Davila.

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