Markings on the ground show where one of the garbage piles removed by the city used to stand. While large piles of debris were removed from the encampment on Sunday, the tents set up by encampment residents were left in place. Oct. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley city workers spent around six hours Sunday hauling away trash and debris from the Seabreeze homeless encampment by Interstate 80 and University Avenue. In total, the city hauled away 30 truckfuls, around 35 tons, of garbage, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín.

Starting around 8 a.m, 12 staffers from the Public Works Department entered the northernmost “eyebrow” of the Seabreeze encampment with heavy machinery to take away the debris, bike parts, furniture and other items that had been piling up. Volunteers from the advocacy group, Where Do We Go, Berkeley? had worked with residents in the past few weeks to extract junk from the area where people have set up tents, according to Ian Rogers, the lead advocate for the group. The group created piles of items to be removed so city workers could access them easily.

“We worked with the residents to get rid of stuff and help them pare down items,” said Rogers.

There are about 50-60 people currently living at the Seabreeze homeless encampment down from a high of 100, said Rogers. Many of the former residents were young people who tend to only stay a while, he said.

Berkeley workers did not clean up the southernmost “eyebrow,” said Arreguín because the California Highway Patrol was needed to cordon off traffic and the agency did not agree to participate. Berkeley police were able to cordon off the northernmost eyebrow by closing the on-ramp to westbound Interstate 80/580 toward Emeryville and San Francisco. The ramp was closed for about six hours.

The CHP did not return a Berkeleyside call seeking comment.

A wheelchair, flatscreen TV and garbage can sit at the roadside of the University Avenue I-80 entrance ramp. Oct. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
A large pile of debris sits at the side of the University Avenue I-80 exit ramp. Oct. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley, Caltrans at odds over encampment conditions

Caltrans, the state agency that owns the land, and Berkeley have had a contentious relationship around the encampments, which have been around for a few years. While Caltrans has been hauling garbage away with some regularity, it hasn’t happened often enough for the campers’ or Berkeley’s satisfaction, said Arreguín. Berkeley had wanted to temporarily relocate the campers to do a more extensive clean, but Caltrans was not open to that idea, said Arreguín. Berkeley even asked State Sen. Nancy Skinner to intervene to get Caltrans to be more proactive, but her efforts did not help much, said Arreguín.

Berkeley and Caltrans have been working to clear this particular parcel of land since August, said Arreguín.

“They didn’t want a confrontation but by not trying to work with the homeless and the city of Berkeley to figure out a solution is not acceptable,” said Arreguín.

Berkeleyside reached out to Caltrans for comment, but the agency had not replied with a detailed answer by press time.

None of the campers were moved during the cleanup, said Arreguín.

“The tents are still there for now,” he said. “Longterm, we need to find a safe place for them to live but we don’t have that.”

The Berkeley City Council voted to allow a sanctioned encampment in Berkeley but officials have not been able to find an appropriate spot yet.

In recent weeks, Caltrans has cleaned out the encampment near the Gilman Street underpass and one at the Ashby Avenue underpass, said Roger. Berkeley cleaned out an encampment at Willard Park in September that presented health and safety issues, but has in general has left most other encampments alone, said Arreguín. CDC guidelines recommend not moving people during the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

A pillow with the phrase “Home Sweet Home” sits atop a chair at one of the tent residents at the Seabreeze homeless encampment. Oct. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
A pillow with the phrase “Home Sweet Home” sits atop a chair at one of the tent residents at the Seabreeze homeless encampment. Oct. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
The University Avenue entrance to the westbound I-80/I-580 was blocked off to clean up piles of garbage collected by homeless encampment residents. Oct. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
Cones and a patrol car block off one of the lanes of the University Ave I-80 overpass. Photo: Pete Rosos

Why is there always so much debris at the Seabreeze encampment?

Drivers passing by the University Avenue off-ramp on I-80 are frequently shocked by the mounds of debris that have piled up. Some of it has been illegally dumped, said Rogers. But much of it has been collected by the residents. It’s not that unhoused people have more stuff than people living in houses, it’s just that it is more visible, said Rogers. There are no walls to hide a person’s stuff.

“It’s a different mentality when you are unhoused,” said Rogers. “When you are able to get and hold on to things, you do. The stuff has value.”

Arreguín said Monday that if Caltrans doesn’t start more regular garbage service, Berkeley will.

“I am not going to pass the buck,” said Arreguín. “This is Berkeley even though it is not city of Berkeley property. In the end, we are responsible and we need to find a solution.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...