Second Street between Cedar and Page streets Thursday, June 7, 2018. Photo: Citizen Reporter

Last week, it was RVs at the marina. This week, the city of Berkeley set its sights on Second and Cedar streets.

The city of Berkeley has spent much of this week breaking up a relatively longstanding homeless encampment centered at Second and Cedar. Homeless campers in the area have been told they need to move.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said the cleanup started Monday after staff handed out notices the prior week. The city estimated that about 26 people were living in an area spanning five city blocks when the effort began. As of Thursday, he said, 45 tons of garbage and debris had been cleared.

The city notices were addressed to “persons lodging/camping on Second Street, Jones Street, Cedar Street, and Virginia Street.” It told them they were in violation of rules related to public lodging and obstruction of streets or sidewalks.

Chakko said “a pretty significant and sizable collection of people” had moved to the area, bringing with them “a growing number of health and safety concerns.” Those included feces, urine, needles and rats, Chakko said. The street also had been blocked, he added.

Monday, the city began clearing the area and “encouraging people to move,” Chakko said. “It became an environment that wasn’t safe for them or for anybody else that might be going through that area.”

Chakko said health and safety concerns have driven how the city has prioritized its response to illegal encampments in Berkeley. The city’s Homeless Outreach Team has visited the Second Street camp multiple times to try to connect people on the streets with services. In addition, the city gave out reservations for Berkeley shelter beds. A few people made reservations, Chakko said, but no one showed up to claim them Monday or Tuesday nights.

Second Street between Cedar and Page streets Thursday, May 26, 2018. Photo: Citizen Reporter
Cedar Street east of Second Street: May 26 (left) and June 7. Photos: Citizen reporter

He said there had been no arrests or citations, but authorities did find more than one unoccupied vehicle with expired registration. Those vehicles were towed.

Chakko said the city gives people ample time to move their property anytime there’s a cleanup effort. Any abandoned item that appears to have value is stored and can be picked up later, he said.

Thursday morning, the Berkeley Police Department put out a Nixle alert advising of “Intermittent Road Closures” in the 600 and 700 blocks of Cedar Street on Thursday: “To allow for Public Works maintenance, Cedar Street between Eastshore Highway and Fourth Street will be intermittently closed throughout the day between now and 3 pm. Persons driving through the area should expect delays and plan to use alternate routes.”

Chakko said the Nixle alert was, in fact, related to the encampment cleanup.

The video below shows the scene on Second, at Cedar, in December.

YouTube video

The people who were living in the camp are now scattered around various other sites. A small group relocated with their possessions just a block or so up Cedar Street.

One of the residents, Dartagnan, who declined to give a last name, was standing by the downsized Cedar camp Thursday afternoon. He said he’d swept up the area around the box he was living in on Second Street after receiving the notice, and got rid of some of his belongings, because “usually people leave huge messes and I hate that.”

“I wasn’t too unhappy with the process until it came to a point when I felt deceived,” Dartagnan said. He said the city’s notices seemed “deliberately vague” since they didn’t specify how far up Cedar or Virginia the warning applied.

“I don’t blame the individual workers,” he said. “Still, [the clear-out] triggered me. It was trying, physically and mentally.”

Earlier this week, longtime homeless advocate and attorney Osha Neumann of the East Bay Community Law Center sent an open letter to city officials to share his concerns about the city’s approach to the Second Street encampment. He wrote that he happened to be driving down Cedar when he saw police and city staff handing out violation notices. He went on to describe the scene he observed when he stopped to speak with them.

“To the north of where we were standing rows of tents and tarps stretched down Second Street for blocks with vast piles of possessions of various sorts all around and in between,” he wrote. “To the south, the block between Cedar and Virginia was fenced off with chain-link fence, behind which sat two empty portables, the future home of a Pathways STAIR Center, that has been rumored to open for some time and mighty [sic] open in June.”

Neumann wrote that, despite the city’s notices warning that lodging was not allowed in the area, it had in fact been allowed for a year. The city had even installed a portable toilet for campers to use, he wrote. And he said it was unfair for the city to require inhabitants to leave without offering a viable alternative.

“Does the City have any idea who’s living on Second Street?” Neumann wrote. “It’s mostly people who have been homeless for many many years for reasons too numerous to mention, but which include the fact that they have significant mental and physical disabilities. They are people with difficult lives who do not deserve to have their lives made more difficult by us. If we can’t help, at least let us do no harm.”

Caltrans at work at University Avenue. Photo: Bryce Nesbitt

Also in West Berkeley on Thursday morning, Caltrans cleared out two other homeless encampments. Both were located near or under I-80, one toward the bottom of University Avenue and one on Gilman Street, said spokesman Bob Haus.

Haus said the agency posted notices 72 hours ahead of time, then came in and cleared out belonging and cleaned the areas. If the possessions left at the sites were worth more than $50, Caltrans kept them so campers could come collect them for a period of time, he said.

Clearing out “unauthorized encampments is one of the usual tasks we have to do,” Haus said. “It’s just a danger to both the public and the homeless too. It’s a public health hazard and a safety hazard.”

Local resident Bryce Nesbitt told Berkeleyside on Thursday morning that he noticed Caltrans at work “clearing the longstanding encampment under University.”

“The University Avenue encampment was among the most stable in the area. Several residents had solar power, the tent configuration was stable, and the area was kept relatively tidy. Recently more campers have moved in, and an informal bike shop opened,” he said.

Haus said he was not sure whether the Caltrans clear-outs were coordinated with the city’s, but he said it was likely.

“We usually work together,” he said.

This story was updated after publication with information from Caltrans and a former Second Street camper.

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 of the Year...