For over two years, the entrance to Berkeley off Interstate 80 has been emblematic of the Bay Area’s crushing homelessness crisis.
Local and state politicians have raised the alarm over the sprawling tent cities — some of the East Bay’s largest — and the dangerous conditions they pose both for residents and neighbors. Encampment residents and their advocates have worked for years to make the camps as safe as possible while people await transitions into more suitable housing.
Now, the encampments are gone.
Following a long lull in sweeps during the pandemic, Caltrans cleared out the encampments on its properties at Gilman Street and University Avenue and Frontage Road in August. The agency is currently locked in two court disputes with “Where Do We Go Berkeley?” blocking evictions at the last encampment at Ashby Avenue and Shellmound Street in Emeryville, where a handful of residents from other sweeps have relocated as they await housing. Civil rights lawyer Andrea Henson co-founded the nonprofit with encampment residents in 2019 as a response to Caltrans sweeps.
The University-Frontage encampment includes two separate areas, “upstairs” across from Seabreeze Cafe, and “downstairs” under the I-80 freeway. Downstairs was swept starting Aug. 9 with advance notice by Caltrans, as required by law, and upstairs was cleared out one week later beginning Aug. 18.
The clearing out was a long time coming, and local leaders have touted it as a gargantuan, successful collaboration between the numerous entities in charge of encampments, social services and housing in the East Bay. That includes the city, CalTrans, Alameda County and the state, which provided funding to the county during the pandemic to set up hotel rooms for homeless residents. The city in July also opened the 24-hour Grayson shelter, formally known as the Horizon Transitional Shelter, with room for about 50 people.
But some residents were still unhoused or were still in a pipeline to temporary housing, when the camps were cleared.
Jermaine “Cat” Lee White, a Frontage-University encampment resident for over a year, got a space in the Rodeway Inn.
“People in my situation, we grow so attached to our belongings. Being that we’re homeless — everything that we have is home,” White said, standing outside the former encampment on Aug. 20 and organizing the remainder of his items. “So, when we get threats of it being taken away, or we’re being evicted, to become “homeless” again in our homeless situation, it’s stressful.”
Where Do We Go has been tracking the 131 people who have passed through the three encampments — Gilman, University-Frontage and Ashby-Shellmound — since 2019. That's a "moving number," and no more than 100 or so people lived at the encampments at any one time, according to the city's and others' estimates. (There was no point-in-time count this year due to the pandemic, but the city estimates there are over 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley.)
A quarter of the people had been placed in hotels as of Aug. 28, 17% had moved into permanent housing and a handful were in local shelters. The remainder are still living on the streets, have unknown whereabouts or are incarcerated. Three residents have died since 2019.
Social workers from the city of Berkeley, Bay Area Community Services and LifeLong Medical Care have done intake and outreach at the camps multiple times weekly since they first developed. With the launch of Project Roomkey during the pandemic, that work ramped up into placing almost 50 people (some of them couples) into 40 hotel rooms at the Rodeway Inn in Berkeley.
Not all of those people were from the West Berkeley camps, but data from Where Do We Go, collected through outreach and interviews, put 33 people in those hotel rooms before the sweeps, with the largest group coming from Ashby-Shellmound. Hotel rooms were prioritized for elderly residents and those with disabilities or other factors putting them at higher risk for COVID-19.
The same number of people — 33 — are still currently living on the streets.
Currently, at least 17 people in that group have relocated to the area of Ashby Avenue at the Emeryville-Berkeley border from the three former major encampments. Where Do We Go co-founder and civil rights lawyer Andrea Henson said many of them have disabilities and compounding mental health factors that make traditional shelters unsuitable, and the hotel rooms have filled up for the time being, according to Henson and the city.
Others have mental health problems or disabilities that aren't compatible with communal spaces like shelter, or don't want to continue transitioning through temporary housing.
Sarah Teague originally couldn't move to a hotel or the Grayson shelter because she had a very large dog.
Over the weekend, Teague's dog was struck and killed during the transition from the University-Frontage encampment to Ashby-Shellmound, Henson said. She and her partner are still recovering from the loss.
"I'm 55 years old, and I'm in good shape, but I need a place to live," Teague said Aug. 27. Ideally, she would prefer to get a subsidized apartment with social security income. "My life is going to be shorter if I [keep] living on the street."
There are 22 people (17%) from the camps who have been able to get permanent housing, either with subsidized apartments, family members, or other living spaces like recreational vehicles, according to Where Do We Go.
Very few people from the encampments are currently living in shelters, though people marked as "unknown" in the data may actually be staying in a shelter, Henson said. The group sources its information on people who moved into shelters by asking other homeless residents about people's whereabouts.
Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen said only two people from the West Berkeley encampments took up an offer to stay at the Grayson shelter. Those two people have been factored into the data provided by Where Do We Go for Berkeleyside's charts.
The Grayson shelter has capacity for about 50 people and currently has 30 people who are consistently staying at the location, according to Buddenhagen. The city's marketing of the shelter as a respite for the sweeps at University Avenue didn’t quite pan out, but the city counts the roughly 50 hotel and permanent housing placements as a major success.
"I hope that people know that both the city and the county work really hard to try to provide housing opportunities for people that were there," Buddenhagen said. "And 50 people who were there ... living outside in really squalid conditions now live inside, and they now have access to showers and meals and services and health care and things that we would all want for ourselves as well.
"It's really a balancing act between working to provide those opportunities for people and also mitigating the negative impacts that homelessness can have on communities," he said. "Now 50 people are better off, and a number of people are still outside, and we'll continue to figure out how to help them."
Encampment sweeps make it difficult to support residents, advocates say
In a Zoom session on Aug. 2, Northern California U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen extended a temporary restraining order against Caltrans for the Ashby-Shellmound encampment until Friday. Henson and Where Do We Go co-founder Osha Neumann argued that the camp sweeps caused major instability for several homeless residents who were in the process of finding housing.
Due to the terms of a legal settlement that paid out in early August, Caltrans is required to give adequate notice before an encampment sweep. Caltrans did that for both upstairs and downstairs in West Berkeley, as well as Ashby-Shellmound.
"There had been ongoing efforts to find placement for people, but they had not been completed [before the sweeps]," Neumann told Chen last week. "The result of that is that people who were evicted from downstairs and Seabreeze had no place to go. They went to various places — all of them significantly more dangerous than the place they were at."
Henson emphasized that many of these people were on track to getting housing, and the evictions have caused disarray.
"Unfortunately, their service providers are losing them, and we're finding them and reconnecting them because they are on lists, they just haven't been placed yet," Henson added. "Almost everyone who is moving around now is on some sort of a list for housing, it just takes a lot of time."
This included an elderly woman who moved a mattress onto the street; Alhondro Myers, who hurt his back moving several possessions down Frontage Road to the Ashby Avenue encampment; Teague and her partner; and others. These people are on waitlists to get into hotels, which are now full, or cannot be at the Grayson shelter due to disabilities or mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder, Henson said.
Caltrans lawyers argued that the restraining order, which was originally granted in April, would continue to allow people to live in dangerous conditions, as well as violate an existing Airspace lease of Caltrans land near highways.
"While Caltrans has been extremely patient and worked with our local partners and plaintiffs, I think at this point ... it would be extremely unfair and the court would put Caltrans in an extremely difficult position," Caltrans attorney Alex Pevzner said in court last week.
After the "downstairs" sweep, Caltrans wrote in a statement to Berkeleyside: “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. 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.”
Though housing is the goal for the majority of former residents, and many acknowledge sweeps are inevitable, they also express that the stressors could be abated by a gradual process and more support.
Over the weekend, Where Do We Go interviewed the remaining camp residents and submitted their findings to the court this week. The two groups are due back in court Friday.
What comes next for the city of Berkeley's approach to homelessness?
Much of Berkeley's approach to homelessness was overhauled during the pandemic due to safety and health challenges, including a pause on enforcement of the sidewalk ordinance, more cleaning and services, changes to shelter capacities and the introduction of mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in the pandemic's later stages.
Along with these local initiatives, Berkeley elected officials, including Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Terry Taplin (whose districts include the West Berkeley encampments), have been working with state leaders like Sen. Nancy Skinner to advocate for regional resources designed to end homelessness, like the state-funded Rodeway Inn.
The West Berkeley encampment clear-out was one product of these ongoing, multi-jurisdictional conversations — seen as a positive development by local leaders and many Berkeley residents. It took buy-in from the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom (who surprised the city by showing up in person at one of the sweeps), Caltrans, Alameda County and other state agencies and community groups.
"What people saw was Caltrans crews going in and removing tents, and they see a clear site now," Arreguín said, explaining that much of the momentum began when Jason Elliott, Newsom's senior advisor on housing and homelessness, reached out to him in the spring to develop a rehousing plan for the residents at the encampment. "It was very challenging, needless to say, the coordination between the different agencies."
Arreguín said creating a timeline for the cleanup was a group effort.
"This has been probably the most visible encampment in Berkeley and probably in the East Bay. I get phone calls and emails about it on almost a daily basis," Arreguín said.
He added that as the homelessness and housing crisis has worsened in California, and become further exacerbated by the pandemic, Caltrans' responsibilities have shifted from transportation to social work.
This has led to tension between local municipalities and Caltrans, and the homeless residents that often bear the consequences of miscommunication between the two groups.
One of those consequences was the lack of social workers at sweeps on Caltrans property, which otherwise would be provided by the city and the county to support residents in their moves. There were also no social workers, other than Where Do We Go, aiding residents in moving their possessions after the sweep.
"Clearly, there's a lot more work to do," Arreguín said, emphasizing that although they were absent after the most recent sweeps, workers have been doing outreach at the encampments for three years and have successfully placed some residents into permanent housing. "I don't know why our team wasn't out there, but I'll follow up and make sure that we connect with people who have relocated."
He said a compassionate approach will continue to rely on regional collaboration moving forward, including the city's open request for permanent hotel rooms with the state's Project Homekey and other elements of the California Comeback Plan. The city has also committed $500,000 to biweekly cleanups in its latest budget for the next fiscal year.
“The reality is, we don’t have enough housing for everyone who wants permanent housing, and that’s unfortunate," Arreguín said. "Berkeley is a city of 120,000 people with a budget of roughly $600 million dollars, this isn’t something that Berkeley is going to solve alone.
"In this case, the state, the county and the city all had a role to play, and we all had resources that we could bring to the table to address this comprehensively," he added.