Caltrans workers work on putting up a fence to keep out homeless campers at the Gilman Street interchange of Interstate 80, in Berkeley, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. Photo: David Yee ©2016
Caltrans workers put up a fence to keep out homeless campers at the Gilman Street underpass below I-80 on Thursday. Photo: David Yee

In the latest attempt by authorities to keep people from camping in Berkeley beneath the Interstate 80 freeway, Caltrans built a stronger fence on Gilman Street this week.

Homeless campers, many of whom came from the Albany Bulb, have said the freeway offers shelter in the rainy months, and feels like their place of last resort. For those who panhandle, the location allows easy access to both vehicles coming off the freeway and nearby San Pablo Avenue, where McDonald’s is another high-traffic spot to interact with drivers, and gas stations offer a place to clean up.

While advocates for those experiencing homelessness say these individuals shouldn’t be penalized and have nowhere else to go, other local residents have expressed frustration at what the city has described as a public health nightmare rife with used needles, bottles of urine, rats scurrying around and human feces.

Read more about the Gilman underpass.

The new fencing, on the south side of Gilman Street below the overpass, is designed to make it harder for people to set up tents on either side of the sidewalk. It joins other new fencing that has gone up in recent weeks to restrict access to areas around the freeway where the homeless have been living.

Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus said the city of Berkeley asked the agency to improve upon the existing chain link fencing that was installed in 2014 to try to tackle the same problem.

“Berkeley asked us to put in something,” he said. “And we agreed that that was warranted.”

Thursday on the south side of Gilman Street looking east: A newly installed fence is seen on the left of this stretch of Gilman, while the 2014 chain link fence on the right will be replaced with stronger material. Photo: David Yee
On July 7: The same fenced area (as seen in the photograph above), looking east, after a previous biweekly clean-up. Campers were moving back in before authorities had even left the scene. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Caltrans began putting in the fencing Thursday along the southern sidewalk, and plans to finish the job this month. Workers are slated to install more fencing along the northern sidewalk, too.

Previously, chain link fences separated the sidewalk from the wide open spaces below the overpass, but the dirt strips between the sidewalk and Gilman itself were accessible to more than a dozen people who set up their tents and camps. Now, that will no longer be the case, authorities hope.

Haus described the new material as “good strong fence” that is harder to cut through than what was previously put there. The goal, he said, is to “make it harder for them to camp in the dirt areas.”

Haus said people had been breaking through the old fence, which is one reason stronger fencing is being installed.

“We have quite a bit of it out there now,” he said.

Read more coverage of homelessness in Berkeley.

Caltrans has clean-ups scheduled every two weeks on Gilman at I-80, as well as in many other locations that fall under its jurisdiction. The agency posts notices on site 72 hours in advance.

On the day of the clean-up, officers from the California Highway Patrol go in first to let people know it’s time to go. Some campers themselves also take on the task of waking up the others so they can get out of the way before authorities arrive.

Any items the campers leave behind are removed. Some are stored while most are disposed of, which has been of concern to homeless campers and their advocates.

“There was a lot of it today, a lot of trash left behind,” said Haus, who was on the scene during Thursday’s clean-up operation. He said several truckloads of debris were removed from the area.

People have been setting up tents in the dirt median strips adjacent to Gilman Street. This is how the area looked one day in June on the north side of the street, looking west. Caltrans plans to add more fencing on the north side later this month. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Thursday’s efforts, Haus said, went “as smoothly as it can be.”

“Quite a few of the homeless people become angry,” he said, but there were “no physical altercations, nothing requiring the police to actually step in.”

He continued: “It went as well as you can expect, but it’s never a pleasant task, that’s for certain.”

Haus said Caltrans is trying to address the issues of immediate concern on Gilman. But he said the larger problem of homelessness is one that will require a collaborative approach from those both in and out of government.

“No one agency is going to be able to solve this,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”

One passer-by told Berkeleyside he had cycled through the area and that it looked like many of the homeless had moved their tents and camps over to the Eastshore Highway, just east of the I-80, at Gilman.

A homeless man, who goes by the name “Scrap-e,” sweeps up at an encampment near the Gilman Street interchange of Interstate 80 as Caltrans workers nearby install a fence to curtail camping below the freeway. Photo: David Yee

The city of Berkeley, which declined to comment Thursday, has said previously that the California Highway Patrol plans to step up enforcement and issue more tickets in the area after the new fence goes in.

CHP Oakland spokesman Officer Sean Wilkenfeld said Thursday that the agency has always written citations in the area, such as those for panhandling and trespassing. He said he hadn’t heard of any plans to increase enforcement efforts, but said it was certainly a possibility, particularly in light of the new fence.

Last time Caltrans put in a fence, that’s what happened, Wilkenfeld said, as a way to let people know the agency was serious about keeping the fenced-off areas off limits.

Wilkenfeld described the area on Gilman beneath the freeway as “a bad location” with “a huge number of needles, people with warrants in the area” and feces.

“It’s not a healthy or a safe place,” he said. “So I think that’s why Caltrans is working so hard to try and get this [fencing] in.”

Homeless advocates say officials are dumping too many prized personal possessions (08.03.16)
UC Berkeley’s Suitcase Clinic: Services for the homeless, life lessons for the volunteers (07.12.16)
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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Emilie Raguso (senior editor, news) joined the Berkeleyside team in 2012. She covers politics, public safety and development. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...