A homeless couple sleeps as Berkeley city officials watch Berkeley and Caltrans work crews clear out a homeless encampment near the Gilman Street interchange of I-80 on Thursday. Photo: David Yee

In a coordinated effort, workers from Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and the city of Berkeley cleared out a large homeless encampment on Gilman Street near the I-80 freeway on Thursday.

It’s the latest chapter in a struggle that has been going on for years between homeless denizens who have set up their tents on Gilman in West Berkeley, and authorities who say the squalid conditions that result cannot be left unchecked.

Jim Hynes, with the Berkeley city manager’s office, said homeless outreach, city maintenance crews, mental health workers and environmental health staff were all on the scene to help out. He estimated that five containers of syringes, some 250 needles, had been removed, along with numerous bottles of human urine.

“It’s not a pretty sight, that’s for sure,” he said. 

With increasing frequency, Berkeleyside readers have been asking for updates on the camp, which they say has been growing. In May, it was one of the topics at a meeting about public safety issues that was organized by Councilwoman Linda Maio.

A Berkeley public works crew cleared out a homeless camp near the Gilman Street off-ramp of I-80 on Thursday. Photo: David Yee
A Berkeley public works crew cleared out a homeless camp near the Gilman Street off-ramp of I-80 on Thursday. Photo: David Yee

“The Gilman underpass is a disgrace for the homeless and other residents, and leaves our kids who play soccer at Gilman scared and anxious,” said one woman who wrote in recently. “The city does nothing but move that population around every so often.”

Read more about homelessness in Berkeley.

Another said he has seen what he believes to be bicycle chop shops, garbage and a growing number of tents in the area.

When Cal Trans or the City removes the garbage it’s about 4 tons and they all just move right back in,” he said. “They need to go and I have contacted a Caltrans supervisor in this matter as I am sick of it.”

Caltrans spokeswoman RocQuel Johnson said Thursday that agency maintenance crews are scheduled to clean up the area twice a month, following written notification 72 hours prior. She said it’s just one of the many areas on a long list of places that need attention from Caltrans to address safety concerns, and that crews don’t always stick to the schedule depending on other demands.

Johnson said she had no details about Thursday’s operation but would attempt to find out more.

A Berkeley public works crew cleared out a homeless encampment near the Gilman Street off-ramp of I-80 on Thursday. Photo: David Yee
A Berkeley public works crew cleared out a homeless encampment near the Gilman Street off-ramp of I-80 on Thursday. Photo: David Yee

Hynes, from the city manager’s office, estimated that about 30 homeless people were on the scene when city workers showed up to begin the cleanup at 9 a.m. He said Caltrans had needed to access an underground vault in the area to help set up a camera that will be used for its East Bay corridor freeway messaging system.

Hynes said this was the largest, most coordinated effort he could recall to clean up the area. Problems had gotten so bad, he said, it required a large-scale response.

He said homeless residents were cooperative, piling up items they said could be removed, and taking other items to a different sidewalk location so crews could do their work. One woman did take the city up on its offer to help connect her with housing services, he added.

But there were other indications, he said, of rampant heroin use, as well as dead rats and human feces, particularly on the south side of the street. Hynes said many drivers passing through the area Thursday had honked in support and given the “thumbs up” sign to workers, asking why it had taken so long for the city to address the problem. Hynes said part of the issue was how much coordination it took to get everyone on board to respond.

“Clearly we can’t let it get out of hand again,” he said, adding that the city plans to look deeper at ways it might keep the area safe and clean in the future. Before Caltrans took over the area, he said, workers from Pacific Steel Casting used to park below the freeway. Hynes said a return to that historic use could help keep the area clear of camps in the future.

“It’s sad,” he said. “We just wish that people would take us up on what we could try to offer them. It’s just hard to break through.”

Before Thursday’s clean-up, the encampment had grown. Photo: Matt Smith
Before Thursday’s clean-up, the encampment had grown. Photo: Matt Smith
Bikes and bike parts, and numerous syringes, were among the items removed Thursday from Gilman Street. Photos: Ted Friedman

Oakland-area California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Sean Wilkenfeld confirmed that officers were on the scene Thursday morning to help monitor the clean-up operation. Berkeley Police officers were also part of the effort.

Wilkenfeld said Thursday’s response was larger than usual because it involved Berkeley city workers with the overall goal of doing a “more thorough job … to remove the encampments.”

Wilkenfeld recalled how Caltrans had previously installed a fence, back in 2014, to limit access to the area. But that led homeless individuals to move their tents and belongings onto the sidewalk, which is city property. He said it had become a “vicious cycle” trying to keep the area free of people and debris.

The Gilman clean-up Thursday. Photo: Ted Friedman

Wilkenfeld described a long history of problems on Gilman near the freeway, from panhandling to individuals with warrants to discarded drug paraphernalia such as needles.

“There’s all sorts of stuff under there,” he said. Large amounts of debris, enough to fill a standard-sized garbage truck, have been cleared from the site during prior clean-up days.

He said there have been issues in the past that have required a law enforcement presence, such as handling aggressive people, including those struggling with mental illness or drug addiction. But he said he had not heard of any flare-ups Thursday, and did not believe there had been any arrests.

And Wilkenfeld said, as part of those efforts, the city always sends out workers to try to help connect homeless individuals to services that could improve their circumstances.

“A lot of these people do not want to take those resources,” he said. “It’s sort of frustrating because we’re trying to help and a lot of times they don’t want our help.”

Berkeley homeless encampment at Old City Hall packs up under city orders (12.04.15)
Ohlone Park neighbors brainstorm about homeless influx (10.26.15)
Homeless move to railroad tracks after Gilman ‘clean-up’ (07.30.14)
Rodents, trash prompt clean-up of homeless camp on Gilman; residents ‘scattered’ (07.18.14)
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...