Police officers visit the homeless camp on Gilman Street in West Berkeley daily to provide outreach for residents. Photo: Drew Jaffe
Police officers visit the homeless camp on Gilman Street in West Berkeley daily to provide outreach for residents. Photo: Drew Jaffe

The city of Berkeley, which had planned to remove the personal possessions of the homeless living on Gilman Street under Interstate 80 on July 15, has backed off its insistence that the homeless encampment is a public nuisance.

City Manager Christine Daniel sent out a memo July 9 saying the city is terminating its public nuisance determination. Berkeley just learned that the East Bay Community Law Center is working with city agencies to find temporary housing for the Gilman homeless. The city wants to give everyone more time to find new arrangements, Daniel said.

Daniel emphasized, however, that the encampment is posing a health hazard and the city’s patience is limited.

“The camp activity and accumulations continue to contribute to rodent harborage and create a public nuisance,” Daniel wrote. “The City will monitor the situation and may without further notice take appropriate action to abate public nuisance conditions, up to and including the removal of personal property pursuant to Chapter 11.40 BMC.”

Homeless people have camped out at the underpass for years, but the situation started to get worse in April when Caltrans fenced off a large portion of the area where many had been living. That forced people to squeeze onto a small strip of land and onto the sidewalk.

The situation was exacerbated when the city of Albany reached an agreement with a long-term homeless community that had been living on the Albany Bulb. Albany paid the group individual payments totaling $24,000 to leave permanently, and hired Berkeley Food & Housing Project to find them housing.

But many of the Albany homeless gravitated to Berkeley and the underpass. In the last few months, as the population has grown, so has the mess. The area is piled with broken bicycles, shopping carts, tents, sleeping bags and mattresses.

Inspections by the city’s Environmental Health Division, on May 22 and June 6, determined that the camp was a public nuisance. The city ordered the people living there to clean it up by June 21.

The residents cleaned up the accumulated food, waste and human waste in the area and appealed the public nuisance decision at a June 20 hearing. The homeless residents said rats had been there prior to the camp’s establishment.

Manuel M. Ramirez, manager of Environmental Health, overruled these objections in a July 2 decision, which reaffirmed the nuisance. He ordered that all food waste, trash debris, personal belongings be cleared by July 15 or the city would clear it all.

In a photo taken in April, people adjust to their new cramped sleeping situation after Caltrans erected a fence in the area under I-80 on Gilman Street . Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The prospect of being pushed out once again — after their expulsion from the Albany Bulb — left many residents depressed.

“I’m trying not to even think about it,” resident April Anthony said last week. “Nobody has any ideas as to where they would go. My line is always, ‘they tell us to leave but never where to go.’’’

Lawyer Osha Neumann of the East Bay Community Law Center had criticized the city’s approach as failing to address the root of the problem. Neumann has worked with many of Gilman Street residents since they were first pushed from the Albany Bulb. He has been pushing Berkeley to pursue a more long-term solution, like helping the homeless residents — many of whom are disabled — find affordable housing.

His arguments appear to have been persuasive.

Councilwoman Linda Maio, whose district encompasses the Gilman Street underpass, said the city has been taking steps to provide the homeless with housing. Berkeley Police officers and city workers go down to the campsite daily to provide outreach and counseling.

Neumann said other organizations have been working with the residents as well, including the Trust Clinic in Oakland. Finding housing, though, is increasingly difficult due to the region’s limited subsidized housing and skyrocketing rents.

No one is exactly sure how many people are still living on Gilman. People often go elsewhere during the day and return at night to sleep. Neumann estimated that between seven and 10 people still live at the underpass.

Neumann said he appreciates that the city has terminated the nuisance abatement action, although he is concerned about the part of the notice that says the city could take action to abate public nuisance conditions in future “without further notice.”

“We don’t think they can do that,” he told Berkeleyside. “If they terminated the notice, they would have to post a new notice. I don’t see why they would want to take an action that would involve the removal of people’s property without notice. I hope that’s not what they are contemplating.”

Neumann added that he hoped the city’s public works department would place some trash cans at the Gilman underpass and begin trash pick-up there. “That would eliminate a lot of the problems that led to the initial abatement notice,” he said.

Neumann had appealed the public nuisance ruling by Ramirez of the Environmental Health Division. The Berkeley City Council would have heard the appeal when it returns in September, but that will no longer be necessary.

Daniel’s decision voided the public nuisance determination, said Matthai Chakko, city spokesman.

This story was updated with a correction regarding the payments made to former Albany Bulb residents.

Drew Jaffe is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the East Bay and now attends Occidental College in Los Angeles. He can be reached at djaffe@oxy.edu

Caltrans fence forces homeless to find new places to sleep (04.10.14)
Berkeley dumps possessions of 8 homeless people (01.07.14)

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