West Berkeley homeless occupants have 3 weeks to find housing

Six of the remaining people at the Ashby-Shellmound encampment have disabilities that make it difficult to find housing.

Osha Neumann and EmilyRose Johns, lawyers with the plaintiffs, taking declarations from Ashby-Shellmound residents in August, when Caltrans initially tried to close the encampment. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Homeless occupants at the last remaining West Berkeley encampment near Interstate 80 have until the end of April to find housing after a federal judge refused to grant lawyers four more months to sort out their housing status.

In the decision that came down Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen ruled that the circumstances of the remaining occupants, when weighed against the dangerous conditions of living next to a freeway, didn’t merit an extra fourth-month preliminary injunction for the encampment. The encampment can remain in the area until April 30.

The camp is among several West Berkeley homeless encampments that Caltrans began to close down in August 2021. When the largest camp at University Avenue and Frontage Road was closed, about a dozen residents who had serious disabilities and couldn’t find temporary housing moved to a site near the Ashby Avenue offramp from I-80.

Caltrans insisted that the conditions of the encampment were not safe for people to live in; plus, the property is pending purchase for new development. But Andrea Henson and Osha Neumann, lawyers with Where Do We Go Berkeley, were able to secure a six-month pause on any further closures while they pushed to secure housing for the residents.

Since then, Caltrans and Gov. Gavin Newsom have continued to put pressure on closing the encampment, calling it a “hazardous and inhumane” arrangement.

Lawyers for Caltrans and Where Do We Go Berkeley listen to witness testimony from Ian Morales, the case manager for several of the Ashby-Shellmound occupants, on March 23, 2022.

In court on March 23, Where Do We Go Berkeley lawyers called witness Ian Morales, who has been doing casework for the remaining occupants through Alameda County Homeless Action Center and provided food and resources on his visits through Where Do We Go Berkeley.

He described the complex process of registering homeless people with disabilities into the housing pipeline, which involves visits to physicians to confirm disability status, document authorization at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and more.

Morales said these routine tasks are much more difficult for people who do not feel safe in government institutions due to past experiences. Estrada and Neumann, as well as Morales, emphasized that the residents were close to either finding housing, or being fully registered in the housing process, and four more months would help complete this process.

A bird’s eye view image of the Ashby-Shellmound encampment, offered by the Caltrans lawyers. Credit: Screenshot

“Being able to keep them in place is what got them into housing,” Morales said of the five former encampment residents who are now housed. He explained that if the residents were pushed out of the encampment and lost touch with their service providers, they could completely disappear. “All of the camps are under attack; there’s no safe place for people.”

Caltrans countered with a detailed presentation on the safety risks in the Ashby-Shellmound encampment area and called Jason Fries, a 3D forensics expert who has mapped the area, to explain why people should not be living on the property. He said it was only a matter of time before someone was struck by a vehicle or injured due to the lack of visibility in the area.

Chen ultimately decided that three more weeks would suffice for people to vacate the area and avoid “imminent hardships” and that closing the camp would not exacerbate existing homelessness.

“Furthermore, given the risks identified for the encampments, it is not clear that the plaintiffs would be put into a materially more dangerous situation if the encampments were closed,” Chen wrote.

Featured photo credit: Caltrans

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