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

A coalition of civil-rights groups and one of the nation’s largest law firms have taken on the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), asking for a state-wide, permanent injunction to stop the sweeps which end up confiscating and often destroying the property of homeless people. In Berkeley, this lawsuit would protect homeless people living on state property, such as those who camp at the Gilman underpass.

The class action suit specifically names five homeless people, one of whom used to live at the Gilman underpass and had her belongings confiscated. The other four live in Oakland and Emeryville. The lawsuit states that 55 homeless people have filed claims against Caltrans for having their belongings unlawfully taken and destroyed; 28 of those people had their belongings taken from the Gilman underpass.

Caltrans is “violating the constitutional rights of homeless people by confiscating and destroying their property in ongoing sweeps,” according to a press release by the ACLU of Northern California, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit. “On multiple occasions, Caltrans has failed to give proper notice before raiding encampments — refusing plaintiffs an opportunity to move their belongings before destroying them in trash compactors.”

The suit was filed Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court by three civil-rights nonprofit organizations — The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, the ACLU of Northern California and the East Bay Community Law Center — as well as the national law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

The groups are asking that Caltrans give homeless people adequate notice before they conduct a sweep; that they be specific as to the time and date of the sweep; and that they keep any property for 90 days before disposing of it so the owners can come back and reclaim it.

“All people, including the homeless, have a right to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable seizure of property, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections against the deprivation of property without due process of law,” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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 packed up his things as workers cleared out a homeless encampment near the Gilman interchange of I-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 packed up his things as workers cleared out a homeless encampment near the Gilman interchange of I-80 to put up a fence, in Berkeley, on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Photo: David Yee

This is the third time homeless and civil-rights advocates have sued Caltrans over the issue of property rights. The first two cases were settled, one in 1992 and the second in 2006. Each of those settlements required Caltrans to follow certain policies, but they were time-limited. According to the plaintiffs, Caltrans is now in violation of these previous policies and they are asking for a permanent injunction so they don’t have to re-litigate this issue.

When asked for a response, Caltrans said in a written statement: “While Caltrans is empathetic to the plight of the homeless who seek shelter under our bridges and along our right-of-way, being an active lawsuit, the department will not be able to comment on this litigation.”

“This is a very significant case whose goal is to bring a large and permanent change in the practices of one of the major governmental entities in the state of California, and that requires a lot of resources,” said Osha Neumann, supervising attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, which is located in South Berkeley. Because of the number of groups and lawyers involved in this case — and the two previous settlements. Neumann said he is “very hopeful” that the plaintiffs will win.

An estimated 4,040 of Alameda County’s residents are homeless, according to a March 2016 report by the Alameda County Public Health Department in collaboration with the organization EveryOne Home. Berkeley’s official homeless count is 834 people, but city officials believe the actual count is 1,200.

One of the plaintiffs, Patricia Moore, used to live under the Gilman underpass but now lives in Oakland. According to the ACLU press release, Moore graduated from the University of Alabama with a BA in physical therapy, and originally became homeless when a shoulder injury prevented her from continuing to work as a physical therapist. In 2013, Moore was hit by a car while riding her bicycle and now uses a cane and walker to help with mobility. She once lived at the Albany Bulb but moved away after that city reached a financial settlement with its homeless population.

Caltrans has allegedly taken and destroyed her belongings on at least five separate occasions, according to the lawsuit. On April 29, Moore was packing up her bags in anticipation of a Caltrans sweep when workers arrived an hour earlier than indicated by their posted notice and immediately began confiscating her property. They threw her tent into a compactor, took her bicycle, and almost threw away her walker before a friend intervened.

“One of the workers looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to take everything that you have’,” said Moore.

The land under the Gilman underpass actually belongs to the City of Berkeley, but Caltrans claims to have “an old maintenance agreement” that allows them to do sweeps in that area, according to Neumann.

Neumann said that his organization planned to talk to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and the City Council at Tuesday’s City Council meeting about “how Berkeley has been dealing with people’s possessions.” “Berkeley’s practice has also been to trash people’s belongings,” he said. “We are hoping that Berkeley will mend its ways, but its practices are exactly the same practices that have gotten Caltrans sued three times.”

Berkeley insists that it holds private property at the Transfer Station for pick-up.

Arreguín has asked the council to develop a new policy on how city workers take and store people’s possessions.

To curtail camping, Caltrans builds a new fence on Gilman (08.05.16)
Advocates say Caltrans is dumping too many prized possessions (08.03.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: A fact sheet (06.29.16)
Gilman Street underpass: For many, the poster child of Berkeley homeless camps (06.29.16)
Photos: Living on the streets of Berkeley (06.29.16)
Berkeley seeks to house those most in need at The Hub (06.29.16)
Berkeley homelessness: A timeline from 1982 to 2016 (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: An overview (06.29.16)
Authorities clear out Gilman homeless camp in Berkeley (06.16.16)
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)

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Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...