Police officers visit the homeless camp on Gilman Street in West Berkeley daily to provide outreach for residents. Photo: Drew Jaffe
Berkeley police have been visiting the homeless camp on Gilman Street — pictured here in early July — to provide outreach. Photo: Drew Jaffe
Berkeley police have been visiting the homeless camp on Gilman Street — pictured here in early July — to provide outreach. Photo: Drew Jaffe

Citing concerns about garbage and rodents, both dead and alive, the city of Berkeley sent in a team to clean up Gilman Street beneath Interstate 80 where homeless people have been living in recent months, city staff said Friday.

At least one advocate for the homeless criticized the effort, saying no one was told in advance about the operation, which dispersed residents and will make it harder to provide important services to them, he said.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said Friday shortly before noon that the operation to address ongoing sanitation problems on Gilman under the freeway had gone smoothly. He estimated that perhaps a dozen people were on site when the city arrived Friday morning.

“We removed debris, garbage and other things that had made it a place that was harboring a lot of rodents,” said Chakko. “There were rodents running around… and evidence of dead ones. There are concerns that arise from that kind of environment, so it was important to clean it up.”

He said the city had been hearing from local residents who expressed worry about unsafe and unclean conditions, and had asked the city to take action.

Chakko was unable to provide the time the city arrived on site, but Berkeleyside readers saw the clean-up effort underway at 6:30 a.m.

People who had been camping on Gilman “packed up their stuff and left,” Chakko said. “It was a very calm situation.”

No one was arrested, he said.

City Public Works staff handled the clean-up, and Berkeley Police officers were on site for traffic control purposes, Chakko said. He noted that the effort took place early in the morning to try to limit the traffic impacts in an area that has complex circulation patterns.

“It’s a complicated intersection without people getting in the way, so it was important to have police directing traffic there,” he said.

Other city staff, including people from the Health, Housing & Community Services department, were also in attendance.

Chakko said the city has been working since the beginning of May to try to secure housing for people camping beneath the freeway.

“Offers have been made to move them into housing, with subsidies to pay for it,” he said. “Case managers, housing folks, mental health folks, all sorts of people have been involved to try to find a way to help them transition out of homelessness.”

He said people were not told to stay away, and that no barriers had been installed to keep them from returning. No new notices were posted either. But Chakko said notices that had been hung previously — after a recent decision by the city not to pursue nuisance abatement actions beneath the freeway — remained in place.

According to that notice, “The camp activity and accumulations continue to contribute to rodent harborage and create a public nuisance. 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.”

Chakko said the city hauled away “a lot of garbage” but noted that “anything that appeared to have value was bagged and stored, which is following our standard protocols.” (Anyone looking for property that was removed can call 510-981-4665 for help.)

Homeless advocate: So-called clean-up “just a sad subterfuge”

Local attorney and advocate for the homeless Osha Neumann, of the East Bay Community Law Center, denounced Friday’s operation. He said — contrary to statements from the city — that what took place was much more than a clean-up: “It meant everybody is kicked out of there, everybody. People are really upset.”

When Neumann got to Gilman Street on Friday around 9:30 a.m., he found one man he’d been working with sitting dejectedly on the curb, unsure of where he would go next. The Law Center was able to arrange a ride for him to a place he could stay for several days, but the man was still depressed and rattled.

Neumann said the city should have at least let people know in advance about the plan.

“They came in at 5:30 without notice,” he said. “They just came in with a ton of cops and trucks and hauled people’s stuff away. People are scattered around now. And there was no warning at all, despite the fact we’d been working with the city.”

Neumann said the Law Center has also been working with residents beneath the freeway to find them housing, and has been successful in those efforts. The 7-10 people who were still living in the area included those with significant mental and physical disabilities, he added.

Neumann said he had appreciated when the city terminated its nuisance abatement plans for Gilman Street earlier this month, and acknowledged that the city had clearly reserved the right to return to the area for safety or public health reasons.

“Do that. But you have to give them notice,” said Neumann. “That’s basic constitutional stuff. They just rousted people while they were sleeping.”

Neumann said he asked a police lieutenant and city staff on site why no one had been warned that the so-called clean-up would take place; the city employees he asked told him they hadn’t known in advance about the plans, either.

“Everybody there said: ‘No, we didn’t know, we didn’t know. This was not our idea,’” said Neumann.

(City spokesman Chakko declined to respond to this assertion.)

Regarding the rodents, Neumann said they are prevalent in the area due primarily to the straw and manure from the nearby Golden Gate Fields racetrack, and said it would have been easy enough to bring in garbage receptacles to collect trash if that had been the city’s main goal.

He called the city’s rationale about what took place Friday “ridiculous,” adding “that was just a sad subterfuge.”

Neumann said the operation makes it much harder to provide vital services to the people who need them most, and runs counter to providing the stability or building the relationships that help get people off the streets. He called it “the leaf blower approach” to homelessness.

“You bring in the cops and blow them into some other place. It ain’t right,” he said. “We’re left trying to pick up the pieces, find people, reconnect with them and find out what their condition is, what their health is. It’s really difficult now.”

The removal of people’s property from beneath the freeway will also likely prompt more work, Neumann said. The city ultimately decides what constitutes trash, and what seems to be belongings, and there can be a lot of ambiguity in those decisions.

“People look at what homeless people have, and they often consider it trash,” he said. “We don’t know how much people were able to take, how much got taken by the city and how much gets thrown away. We have no idea.”

He said, if they can find them, the Law Center will continue to do outreach to connect the people who had been living under the freeway with services and housing.

City spokesman Chakko said the city will continue to do the same thing, and takes that work very seriously. Friday morning, staff handed out contact information to the people who had been camping when authorities arrived to make sure they know who to call if they want help.

“A lot of cards were given out today to people,” he said. “It’s not a safe place to live. And the conditions that were developing were certainly not safe.… The goal today was to clean up all of the very serious conditions there.”

Update, July 21: The city manager sent a memo Friday to the Berkeley City Council about the clean-up. She said 1,000 pounds of “garbage, rotting food, hypodermic needles and other debris” were removed from the area during the operation. Read more here.

City of Berkeley gives Gilman Street homeless a reprieve (07.10.14)
Caltrans fence forces homeless to find new camp (04.10.14)
Berkeley dumps possessions of 8 homeless people (01.07.14)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...