The city of Berkeley is working Thursday to install a new fence on Gilman Street on the southeast side of the Interstate 80 freeway as part of ongoing efforts to curtail camping by homeless in the area.
Jim Hynes, from the Berkeley city manager’s office, brought “No Trespassing” signs down to the site in the late morning to hand out to workers who were installing the fence. Hynes said he was also looking into what it might cost to put more fencing on the north side of the street east of the freeway.
Three people received citations Thursday from Berkeley Police officers for obstructing the sidewalk, but no arrests were made. Campers in the area said their property — much of which had both material and sentimental value — was taken and put into a dumpster as part of the enforcement effort.
Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol were also on scene for the cleanup.
Hynes said campers in the area were given notice two days in a row that authorities would be on scene Thursday. He pointed out dozens of used syringes left in the area in the wake of the cleanup, as well as juice bottles full of urine.
He said passing drivers had been supportive of the effort, honking and even pulling over to thank the city for the cleanup. There was also frustration, Hynes said, about why the work had taken so long.
Hynes said there are other plans in the works to help clean up the area. Caltrans is planning to build a taller, stronger fence below the freeway, and install more signs about laws related to public space. Hynes said the California Highway Patrol plans to start writing citations for code violations after that fence goes up. That’s slated to take place in late July.
Hynes said homeless outreach and mental health workers had often been rebuffed by homeless individuals in the area. He described the campers as “openly antagonistic to anything having to do with help.”
He said there had been about 10 campers in the area where the fence was going in, along with another group across the street on the north side. (The campers beneath the freeway are on Caltrans jurisdiction.)
Hynes said businesses in the area had been pleading with the city to address the problem of camping and debris. One ongoing issue, he said, was that some of the campers regularly toss spent syringes over the fences onto the properties of those businesses.
He described the campers as respectful Thursday and said the operation went smoothly.
CHP Officer Sean Deise said the agency had simply been on the scene to keep the peace.
“We’re not here to harass anybody,” he said. He said Caltrans workers had previously been “assaulted with weapons,” which had brought officers to the scene during subsequent clean-up operations. Some of those officers Thursday were armed with less-lethal weapons.
Deise said he fully expected campers to return beneath the freeway as soon as officers and Caltrans packed up to move on to the next location.
“They’re going to be back,” he said. “We’re just here to clean up the debris and the garbage that accumulates.”
He continued: “We give them information for services. A lot of them don’t want it. There’s only so much we can do.”
As of about 12:30 p.m., the area below the freeway was mostly clear of tents and people. But Jacob, one of the campers, had already moved back in beneath I-80 as city workers installed the fence around the corner. The 33-year-old gestured to garbage and waste on the ground nearby and said the clean-up efforts by Caltrans had not been very thorough.
“They want to move us just to take our stuff,” he said.
He knew the cleanup was planned, he added, because notice had been given. Caltrans generally comes twice a month on Thursdays, the agency told Berkeleyside in June.
Jacob said one of the campers had been up at 5:30 a.m. to wake up all the others beneath the freeway to make sure they had time to clear out before Caltrans came in.
Jacob recalled how one of the Caltrans workers had “gloated” about plans for a fence, and told those on site they couldn’t remain in the area because it is private property.
Thomas Barnett, a 55-year-old homeless man who had been camping in the area where the new city fence is being installed, cried as he described what had taken place that morning. He said he lost about $5,000 worth of property, including about 70 bikes and bike frames as well as family mementos.
He said he had only learned about the cleanup Wednesday night, and had been woken Thursday by an officer tearing up his tarp and telling him to clear out.
“I said, ‘I need some help,’” Barnett said. “I couldn’t find anyone.”
One officer ultimately helped him bring over a three-wheeled bike, and another friend saved his generator, but most of Barnett’s possessions ended up going into a dump truck.
“Bulldozers munched it up,” he said. “It was amazing. The jaws munched everything down into a tight bundle.”
He said he had already known he had to find different accommodations and been working to find a place to move his stuff. He previously told Berkeleyside he was hoping to find some kind of workshop or other storage option because of the amount of his property and size of his bike repair operation.
“I just didn’t make it in time,” he said, tears running onto his cheeks. “I thought the city would give us time to get our property.”
He said he wasn’t sure where he would live now that the parcel he had been on was being fenced off.
“There’s still nowhere to go now that I’ve downsized,” Barnett said, looking around at what was left of his property. “Everybody down here feels the same way: Where are we supposed to go?”
Another camper, who identified himself as “Jupiter Of The Universe,” said he had struggled to pack all of his possessions onto a custom rig flatbed cart and get it out of the way of the clean-up crews. But, when he left it unattended on a median for several minutes, workers quickly loaded it into a trash compactor along with many of his possessions.
Items he lost included laptop computers and other electronics, as well as a “very nice backpack.”
“It might have seemed like knick-knacks and useless trash, but to me they’re more than that,” said the 28-year-old who grew up in Berkeley. (He said his father is well-known on Telegraph Avenue as the “patch man” who sets up outside Rasputin record shop.)
He described the area where he had set up his stuff before the cleanup as a political and artistic demonstration, which he said he planned to continue. He and others acknowledged that the area can get messy but said the city should give them space to camp and allow them to police themselves.
“Give us three weeks to see what can’t be done differently than how it’s been,” he said. He said he’d like to see an artistic approach to the community under the freeway that could include artists and performers so it would be a “space for expression.”
Another homeless man, who said he goes by the name “Tennessee,” had been displaced by the cleanup and had set up temporarily near the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex. Thursday’s cleanup hadn’t seemed any different to him than previous efforts, he said.
“They passed out notices yesterday that said, ‘Be gone by 7:30 Thursday morning,’” he said. “So I was.”
He said he planned to go back under the freeway after the work crews had moved on. Tennessee said he always carries out his trash to keep the area clean but acknowledged that this wasn’t true for all the campers. Recently, he said, there had been a problem with mice due to food kept in and around the tents. He said he’d prefer to live inside an apartment but, as a 51-year-old, couldn’t live somewhere where there were rules about when he could come and go.
“This isn’t a place of choice,” he said, of Gilman. “It’s a last option.”
The freeway provides important shelter, especially during the rainy season, he said. He said it seemed like the city is trying to push out the homeless with its repeat operations on Gilman.
“I think they don’t want us in this town,” he said. “A lot of these people are from here and they’re not going anywhere.”
Gilman Street underpass: For many, the poster child of Berkeley homeless camps (06.29.16)
Authorities clear out Gilman homeless camp in Berkeley (06.16.16)
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 ‘cleanup’ (07.30.14)
Rodents, trash prompt cleanup 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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