The people who used to sleep under the Gilman/I-80 underpass are trying to adjust to their new cramped sleeping situation. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
People who used to sleep under the Gilman/I-80 underpass are trying to adjust to their new cramped sleeping situation. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Responding to complaints that the homeless people who camped under the Gilman/I-80 underpass were engaged in criminal activity, Caltrans has fenced off the area — pushing the encampment onto a narrow strip nearby.

Caltrans installed the fencing between Feb. 10 and March 6 at the request of the Berkeley Police Department, “in order to help curtail criminal activity in the area,” said Caltrans spokesman Robert Haus via email.

“We have had complaints regarding criminal activity associated with the encampment down there,” said police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats via email. “We have reached out to those camping in the area through members of our Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), Area Coordinators, and Mobile Crisis workers.”

Caltans erected a fence around an area under the Gilman overcrossing in West Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“We get a lot of calls for people drinking, people fighting, and people laying on the sidewalk” under the overpass, said Officer Jeff Shannon, who is among the city and police representatives who began the effort to address the encampment last fall. Shannon runs the department’s specialized mental health training, or CIT, program.

But the area’s homeless population, which has been pitching tents and sleeping on the sloped ground under the freeway for years, hasn’t gone very far. They just moved a few feet away. The encampment, instead of being tucked away, now takes up room on a more public right-of-way.

The fencing has upset the men and women who regarded the Gilman/I-80 undercrossing as a home of sorts. They disputed the fence’s necessity.

“For years we lived here and coexisted,” said Jeff Edwards, a homeless man who used to sleep in the area that is now blocked off. “There was nothing broken. It’s just them saying, ‘You’re an eyesore to the East Bay.’”

The homeless encampment, which varies from 10 to 50 people, is now squeezed onto a strip near a sidewalk. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Edwards estimated that 10 homeless people spend the day under the overpass and up to 50 sleep there at night.

“They’re basically trying to push all the homeless out of this area,” said Theodore Thomas, another member of the encampment.

The area is the same spot where the city of Berkeley confiscated the unattended possessions of eight homeless people on Dec. 26. In that instance, Caltrans had notified the homeless encampment that they would be doing its monthly cleaning of the underpass. Eight homeless people moved 13 shopping carts out to a piece of city property on Eastshore Highway and Gilman. They then left to attend to personal business. Berkeley city workers thought the carts were abandoned and threw them away, forcing many of the homeless to scramble to find blankets and warm clothes, according to the city.

Some of those who lost their possessions have filed claims against the city. The claims are still pending, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

The homeless people living under the Gilman overpass have been resistant to services offered by the city, Shannon said.

“Essentially what we do is go down there and try to engage people and find out what they need in terms of treatment or housing,” he said. “My experience is that people generally didn’t say they want anything.” A couple of people did ask to speak with homeless outreach workers, he said, but no data has been kept regarding the number of people in the area who have been placed in shelters since that effort began.

Berkeley dumps possession of 8 homeless people (01.07.14)

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...