A Berkeley public works crew clears out a homeless encampment near the Gilman Street off-ramp of I-80, in Berkeley, on Thursday, June 16, 2016. Photo: David Yee

By Mary Rees

They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but who gets to decide which it is?

Every two weeks, Caltrans clears items out from the homeless encampments along the Gilman Street underpass near Interstate 80, according to Bob Haus, the public information branch chief for Caltrans. Sometimes workers from the city of Berkeley remove things, too, such as on July 7.

Read more about Berkeley homelessness on Berkeleyside.

The clean-ups are announced in advance, and when workers arrive the people living there pack up their things as quickly as they can and move them a few hundred feet. Then crews from Caltrans and Berkeley sift through what’s left and decide what’s valuable and what’s not.

“If belongings are deemed valuable, we hold onto them for 30 days at the nearest maintenance yard,” Haus said. If something’s unclaimed and considered worthless, Caltrans disposes of it.

A homeless man who said he was “Jupiter of the Universe” hurriedly packs up his things as workers clear out a homeless encampment near the Gilman interchange of Interstate 80 to put up a fence, in Berkeley, on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Photo: David Yee
A homeless man who said he was “Jupiter of the Universe” hurriedly packs up his things as workers clear out a homeless encampment near the Gilman interchange of Interstate 80 to put up a fence, in Berkeley, on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Photo: David Yee

The Caltrans maintenance supervisor on site that day makes the decisions about what it valuable and what is not, according to Haus. He or she has been trained by video on the best way to approach a clean-up, he said.

“We kept two tents,” on July 7, Haus wrote in an email. The tents were taken to a storage facility behind the California Highway Patrol office at 3601 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland.

The rest of the stuff that was scooped up was taken to the landfill, he said. Caltrans swept four areas on July 7 and disposed of 3.8 tons of debris.

A number of homeless people say that Caltrans is not sorting through what is valuable and what is not, and instead is throwing stuff directly into garbage trucks.

During a Caltrans sweep in June, Brandon Mercer lost a bicycle, a queen-sized mattress and a computer. That time, “they snatched things out of our hands,” Mercer said.

Then, on July 7, “I lost a laptop computer,” Mercer said. “It was in my backpack; they just scraped it up.”

Thomas Barnett told Berkeleyside that Caltrans threw away about 70 bikes and bike frames as well as family mementos on the joint city-Caltrans action on July 7.

Section 2080.1 of the California civil code says that anyone taking charge of someone else’s unclaimed property that’s worth $100 or more must turn it over for safekeeping to the city or county police or sheriff for 90 days.

The actions of Caltrans and the city of Berkeley in disposing of people’s property are illegal, according to Osha Neumann, a lawyer with the East Bay Community Law Center.

“It is unquestionably against state law for either Berkeley or Caltrans to summarily destroy the property that they confiscate. It is also unconstitutional,” Neumann said in an email.

When asked about claims that people’s property had been taken from them while they stood there claiming it, Haus said, “We’d have to have photo or video evidence to back it up.”

Crews load stuff found near Gilman Street in June 2016. Photo: Ted Friedman

City of Berkeley spokesperson Matthai Chakko said that on July 7, Berkeley mental-health worker Eve Ahmed was at Gilman Street and that she “was very clear that she saw nothing” disposed of.

“[Homeless outreach staff] told me personally that they made sure no possessions were taken,” Chakko said.

But history shows that what is a possession and what is junk is not always clear. In December 2014, Berkeley confiscated 13 shopping carts that had been left on the Eastshore Highway near the Gilman underpass. The city said there was nothing of value in what was tossed; the eight homeless people with stuff in those carts disagreed.

Check out Berkeleyside’s Homeless Project coverage. 

When Berkeley does take people’s possessions, it stores those worth less than $100 for 14 days at the storage container at the Berkeley transfer station, and for 90 days if the goods are worth more than $100, said Chakko. People are free to go to the container seven days a week to retrieve their goods. There is no waiting period or need for ID, said Chakko.

Neumann says that for several months, Caltrans has been taking and destroying people’s property regularly.

“We have people to whom that has happened multiple times,” said Neumann. “They lose the necessities of life,” such as documents, mobility devices, tents, and sleeping bags. “Often they’re taken with the person right there pleading with them not to take them.”

The East Bay Community Law Center, in conjunction with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, is considering filing a class-action lawsuit against Caltrans for its practice of throwing away the personal possessions of the homeless, said Neumann. The two groups have been helping people fill out claims against Caltrans in anticipation of the suit, he said.

Eight years ago the ACLU won $2.35 million in a class-action settlement for the homeless residents of Fresno after that city and Caltrans took and destroyed the property of homeless residents. Fresno and the state agency agreed not to destroy property and to keep unclaimed property for 90 days.

Haus said that Caltrans maintenance supervisors have to watch a training video that shows how to clear out homeless camps while being respectful to the people living there. He said that handling someone else’s property comes with some risks — sometimes there may be feces, knives or drugs in it.

In 2014, police officers visited the homeless camp under the Gilman Street underpass almost daily to provide outreach for those living there. Photo: Drew Jaffe

In recent sweeps, city and state crews have thrown away bottles filled with urine, numerous used hypodermic needles, tires, bedding, old clothing and food. City workers have reported that the encampments are unsanitary and that rats often scamper freely around. Numerous residents have complained to the city, as well as to Berkeleyside, about the cleanliness of the Gilman area.

Chakko said that the city’s “first priority is to get [homeless people] into housing,” because that can reduce the stresses on their life.

“Though shelters are only a temporary option, they provide a much more stable, safe environment than living in places such as a freeway underpass,” Chakko wrote in an email. “In addition, our Shelter Plus Care program offers housing to homeless people with a disability…. [T]he City also helps people with Section 8 housing.”

However, in the Bay Area, “there’s little housing available for poor people,” said Neumann.

And defending their right to property doesn’t come easy. “In general, people who are homeless don’t have the means to hold [the agencies] accountable,” Neumann said. He added that they don’t have the means to get lawyers.

In contrast, Neumann suggested how differently the situation would be handled if it were a Tesla blocking the right-of-way, rather than a tent.

City erects fence at Gilman to deal with homeless campers (07.07.16)
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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