Residents under I-80 underpass search for housing after encampment sweep

Homeless residents say the sweep was destabilizing in a time when many of them were looking for housing.

I-80 Encampment Sweep
A residence left behind at the encampment on I-80 off University Avenue following an initial Caltrans sweep on Aug. 9, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Gov. Gavin Newsom personally accompanied Caltrans officials to clear out a longstanding homeless encampment near the Berkeley Marina Monday morning. But while officials claim residents were offered alternate housing, several of them are in states of limbo as they search for another place to live.

The camp, known as “downstairs” to the encampment on University Avenue at Frontage Road, is located underneath the Interstate 80 underpass, accessed by stairs on the pedestrian bridge. Activists with “Where Do We Go Berkeley” have long maintained and fought for both camps, which have existed well over two years during a worsening, regional housing crisis in the Bay Area.

Due to a class action settlement that began paying out Berkeley and Oakland residents last week, Caltrans is required to give at least 48-hour notice for an impending sweep. They posted signs at the camp on July 30 notifying residents of the sweep (a little over a week of notice) and arrived at 8 a.m. on Monday to tell residents to leave.

Joshua “Lostboy” Laforge knew the sweep was coming, but he was waiting for confirmation of alternate housing before leaving the area. It never came, and it was his first day of a new job on Monday when the sweep began. He posted a sign on his tent asking Caltrans to wait until he was done, and that he would come back and move his items.


His girlfriend was there when Caltrans workers arrived and told her she had 10 minutes to clear her possessions. He ultimately had to ask his employer for a grace period while he gathered all his items and moved with her to a dead-end on Allston Way and Fourth Street, where he is currently residing.

Joshua Laforge had to move his belongings with one cart, about half a mile away from the I-80 underpass encampment. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

“I’ve been looking for work, and I finally got the opportunity, so it was just horrible timing,” said Laforge, who is originally from Texas and Louisiana and has been homeless in the Bay Area for about five years.

Laforge is among a handful of residents who do not have confirmed hotel rooms, organized by Alameda County and funded by the state and county through Project Roomkey, as well as the California Comeback Plan to address homelessness and its mental health impacts, which Newsom was promoting as he was photographed picking up trash at the encampment on Monday.

Newsom’s visit was mostly a surprise; Berkeley officials said they found out about it on Monday morning. Some media members were informed when he arrived around 10 a.m. Because the operation was Caltrans and state-led, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said Berkeley “stayed on the periphery.”

Berkeley mental health services and social workers were not on the scene to support residents when the sweep began, but law enforcement from the California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police were in the area throughout the day. Caltrans workers continued sweeping the encampment throughout Tuesday, and a sweep for “upstairs” is planned to begin Aug. 18, with notices posted this weekend.

Local leaders are putting forth solutions, but they don’t work for everybody

Tents at Grayson Shelter
Tents lined up indoors at the Grayson Shelter. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

When the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, it deeply exacerbated the existing homelessness crisis in Berkeley, but the city, county and state responded with multiple initiatives. Berkeley opened the new West Berkeley homeless shelter, Alameda County arranged hotel room vouchers for dozens of homeless residents at the Rodeway Inn and Quality Inn (which is now closed), and state Project Roomkey supported local efforts, especially for residents with disabilities or COVID-19 comorbidities.

The new California Comeback plan is supposed to add another $12 billion toward efforts to end homelessness throughout the state, with $2 billion in flexible funding for local jurisdictions. It also prioritizes encampment sweeps like the one in Berkeley on Monday.

Caltrans said everyone at the encampment was offered housing and 40 people at the encampment were moved into hotel rooms, dating back to June 1. One of those options was the New Horizons Transitional Shelter (or the Grayson shelter), which the city has specifically marketed to residents at the encampments near the Berkeley Marina in advance of the sweeps that began this week.

The encampment under Interstate 80 is usually maintained by residents and Where Do We Go Berkeley, according to lawyer Andrea Henson who is a board member and co-founder of the organization. The group has waged multiple fights to allow residents to stay at the encampment until they are able to access permanent or semi-permanent housing.

A recent destructive fire at the encampment brought its existence under renewed scrutiny, in addition to the deaths of Jason Clary and Jupiter Marley, who were hit and killed by Amtrak trains near the location in 2019.

“Over the past two months, Caltrans and local homeless outreach agencies have worked to provide those living at this encampment with resources for safer living situations to keep them safe,” Caltrans said in a statement. “The homeless encampment on University Avenue and Interstate 80 in Berkeley has led to constant safety concerns to the safety of the individuals living there, including massive fires and other threats to infrastructure.”

Laforge was among the people who was offered shelter at the Grayson Street building. He said he visited the location and found it to be similar to a “concentration camp,” a sentiment expressed by several other homeless people. The shelter is meant to be a temporary transition from tent encampments in the streets into permanent housing, and residents are free to come and go throughout the day. The city’s goal is to provide a middle ground between a sanctioned outdoor encampment and a fully furnished indoor encampment.

Several burnt items after a fire under the I-80 encampment, due to an explosion on July 22. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Laforge was hoping for news on his hotel room, however, and Henson and others said at least three other people have also had to scatter to new locations on the street without having information on where their next bed will be. Henson was on scene at the encampment sweep on Monday morning and collected everyone’s contact information, but the sweep throws a wrench in ongoing housing placement efforts.

“What happened this morning, we sort of conceded. We know you’re going to evict this encampment because there was a fire, a major fire,” Henson said. “But because they evicted (I-80 underpass residents) prior to them being placed … now the service providers are going to have to go find them.”

She also took issue with Newsom’s characterization of the encampment as disorganized, debris-filled and intractable. While advocates, the city and county have been driving efforts to rehouse people at the encampment, and she said Monday was Newsom’s first time making any contribution.

“The governor just showed up today and negated all of the history we had in that encampment,” Henson said. “We’ve been working for two years to get people housed, we’ve been working on keeping it clean, we’ve been working with Caltrans, with Alameda County. He came and took pictures of picking up people’s stuff while people were trying to find a place to go.”

Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic has brought stress, uncertainty to encampments

Seabreeze Encampment, July 2, 2021
The upstairs encampment across from Seabreeze Cafe at University Avenue and Frontage Road, July 2, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The shelter-in-place order instituted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 meant people were allowed to camp on areas of public land with limited or no enforcement. After the state economy reopened on June 15, however, local officials began enforcing the sidewalk ordinance again (also in conjunction with the opening of the Grayson shelter on July 1).

With the need for housing not matching the demand among people who live in encampments throughout the city, this has led to stress and uncertainty as people figure out their next moves.

The four largest homeless encampments in the area of West Berkeley and Emeryville are the one under Interstate 80 (which Caltrans is finishing up sweeping Tuesday), the one “upstairs” at University Avenue and Frontage Road (due for a sweep on Aug. 18), an encampment that has now been swept at Gilman and one at the Berkeley-Emeryville border on Ashby Avenue and Shellmound Street.

Where Do We Go lawyers got a temporary win in April when a judge blocked Emeryville from closing the Ashby-Shellmound camp, but Henson said the protection has since expired and the group is still working on finding housing for people who live there. She said a majority of the five or so residents at that encampment have disabilities and mental health issues, and would not be able to find the accommodations they need at the Grayson shelter.

Jason “Nino” Parker, who lives “upstairs” at the Frontage-University encampment, has been able to secure a hotel room at the Rodeway Inn for about two weeks now and advised one person who was swept from “downstairs” to inquire with the hotel on Monday.

He has a large amount of property at the encampment and is trying to figure out his plan before his area is swept too, and said the mental trauma of sweeps makes it difficult to handle logistics or prepare in a timely manner — especially when someone doesn’t have housing arranged, and there are no supportive services involved.

“It’s weird to have to explain because it seems incoherent, but it’s not,” Parker said. “You’re waiting, waiting, waiting for a (sweep) and then boom — we’re here for real,’ and all your stuff is gone. It’s what they want, to traumatize you.”

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's homelessness and housing reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.