Leroy Morgan. Phon: Bryan Westfall
Leroy Morgan, whose possessions were taken by the city of Berkeley the day after Christmas. Photo: Bryan Westfall

The city of Berkeley collected and threw away the unattended possessions of eight homeless people on Dec. 26. Afterwards many of them said they had to scramble to find new blankets and coverings to stave off the chill of recent winter nights, although the city said it had sifted through the items for valuables such as those and found none. One of the homeless men said the items that were taken were vital to his survival.

The city confiscated about 13 shopping carts filled with possessions on a piece of city property on Eastshore Highway and Gilman the day after Christmas because workers thought the items had been abandoned, according to Matthai Chakko, a spokesman for Berkeley. Staff sorted through the goods and, when they did not find anything of value, dumped it.

“They did clear property that was unattended,” Chakko said. “They looked through it and didn’t find anything valuable. They didn’t find tents, or sleeping bags, or blankets. We would have bagged, tagged, and contained them.”

But Leroy Morgan, 58, who has been living on the streets of Berkeley for three years, said the belongings that were taken were essential to his survival. He left a new pair of shoes, his clothes, his Christmas presents and blankets in his collection of six shopping carts. Those items as well as some new socks from his friends at the Earthsake store, were worth more than $100, he said. Moreover, they were essential to his survival. Morgan said that seven other people who camp out under the undercrossing also lost their things. Interviews with three other homeless people, including two who said their stuff was also taken, backed up Morgan’s contention that at least eight people lost their possessions.

“I lost all my covers,” said Morgan. “I lost all my clothes. I lost my Christmas presents. My girlfriend had six or seven carts. Other people had mattresses. For Caltrans, its normal to do this [dump unattended stuff]. For the city of Berkeley, this is unusual. Berkeley has never done this before.”

Morgan is among a group of people who often sleep under the I-580 overcrossing over Gilman Street. Once a month, Caltrans cleans up the site and throws away discarded bedding, garbage, rotting food and other items.

Caltrans put up a notice informing the homeless community that it would be cleaning out the area under the freeway on Dec. 26. Morgan and others moved their goods a block away around 7:30 a.m that day. When they returned at 12:30 p.m., they saw people loading their things into a white truck and trailer with a city of Berkeley logo on it, said Morgan. The people loading up the goods said they would be stored in a container at the Berkeley Transfer Station on Second Street. Morgan also said the workers told him he would have to wait a week before collecting his goods and would have to show a California identification card. (Morgan does not have one.)

Morgan had lost all his blankets and didn’t have a place to sleep since the local shelters were full, so on Dec. 27, Bryan Westfall, a manager at the Earthsake warehouse on Gilman, sent out a tweet publicizing Morgan’s situation. The two have gotten to know one another as the Earthsake warehouse is near the Gilman overcrossing.

When Berkelsyside first contacted the city on Dec. 27, during a one-week city hall closure, Chakko said he could not find any evidence that Berkeley workers had taken the homeless people’s possessions. He talked to five people to try to track down what happened.

On Monday Jan. 6, after everyone had returned to work from the holiday break, Chakko interviewed more people and found out that city workers had taken the possessions and gotten rid of them.

Berkeley tries to be sensitive to the plight of the homeless and has set up a system of storing abandoned possessions worth less than $100 for 14 days at the storage container at the transfer station, and for 90 days if the goods are worth more than $100. People are free to go to the container seven days a week to retrieve their goods. There is no waiting period or need for ID, said Chakko.

The city tries to strike a balance between respecting the property of the homeless and keeping the streets free of illegally dumped goods, he said.

“Illegal dumping is an issue,” said Chakko. “If there is unattended property lying around there is an interest in us cleaning it up and at the same time we recognize this may be somebody’s possessions so that is why the city has this system of saving possessions if they are of value.”

Storage is an issue for homeless people, particularly if they travel around with shopping carts. Only one drop-in center in Berkeley, at 3234 Adeline St., has lockers, according to Berkeley’s website for homeless and community services. But the lockers are small and cannot accommodate a shopping cart.

“You have people stealing your shopping carts all the time,” said Morgan. He said a thrift store manager had given him a sleeping bag and a pad, but it wasn’t enough to keep him warm at night. Morgan said he is no longer sleeping under the Gilman St. overcrossing because he is afraid his stuff might be confiscated again.

Chakko said the workers from public works did not find anything of value in the goods they recovered or they would have saved rather than dumped them. He speculated that perhaps someone could have taken out the more valuable items before the city carted them off.

Chakko said Morgan and the others can file a claim with the Berkeley City Attorney to be reimbursed for what they lost.

“They are welcome to make a claim and we would encourage that,” he said.

New talks on homelessness in Berkeley start on Thursday (08.13.13)
Berkeley Food and Housing Project wins $1m grant (07.23.13)
Op-Ed: Berkeley needs a year-round youth shelter (05.30.13)
People’s Park focal point for countywide homeless count (02.01.13)
Berkeley moves towards a consensus homeless plan (01.31.13)
After Measure S failure, it’s time to act on homelessness (01.24.13)
Has it gotten harder to be homeless in Berkeley? (01.02.13)
Downtown Berkeley ambassadors help, monitor homeless (07.02.12)
Police step up patrols on Telegraph to clear sidewalks (05.01.12)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...