View of street lined with RVs at night
The RV encampment at 8th and Harrison streets in 2021. The city has closed 52 encampments since then, with a large focus on encampments in West and Northwest Berkeley. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Three residents who lived at homeless encampments in West Berkeley have filed lawsuits alleging mistreatment by the city as it continues to close or relocate encampments.

The city’s plans to close a long-standing encampment near the intersection of Eighth and Harrison streets were halted in September by a lawsuit from RV residents at the location, claiming a lack of adequate housing options and a lack of advance notice about the closure. A judge lifted the temporary restraining order at the end of September, but the city hasn’t yet moved to close it down completely. 

On Oct. 5, two more residents who formerly lived at Eighth and Harrison filed suit against the city, arguing that city workers destroyed their property and “the property of people experiencing homelessness” during the initial closure of that encampment last October. The residents, Clarence Galtney and Andrew Thomas Vanderzyl, argue in the suit that people will “continue to suffer the same type of loss” as long as the city pursues cleanups and closures.

The city has signed a lease at the Super 8 motel on University Avenue to offer 23 beds to Eighth and Harrison residents. Berkeley leased the hotel for $7.8 million with support of state “encampment resolution” funds, and it will run through July 31, 2028. 

But residents argue in lawsuits that the ongoing threat of closure is even more dangerous because the hotel can only accommodate half of the RV encampments residents, and they cannot relocate to a safe parking site — as most RV residents at the camp prefer. 

The city’s only safe parking site, which allowed RV parking and resources adjacent to the former Horizon Transitional Village, closed in December 2022.

The 82-page suit seeks punitive damages, and says as a result of “illegal seizures,” homeless residents have lost materials to use as shelter, medicine, clothing, tools, personal papers, family heirlooms, “often while plaintiffs were present, pleasing to spare their possessions and watching helplessly as what little they have is swept up and crushed by heavy machinery.”

Peter Radu, who leads the city’s Homeless Response Team, said the city does not comment on ongoing litigation.

But he and the city have maintained that they respond to encampments to mitigate health and safety concerns, like mounting garbage, rodent infestations and dangerous conditions at encampments, like people living near active traffic. 

The city’s Homeless Response Team has concentrated most of its efforts in West and Northwest Berkeley over the last three years to close the city’s largest encampments, which formerly existed by the I-80 freeway, and currently persist in industrial areas of Gilman and Harrison streets. The city has closed 52 encampments since 2021.

In those closures, the city offered temporary housing to 576 residents, and 44%, or 243 people, accepted the options, the city manager said in a report to City Council this week. Many homeless residents have turned down offers because their health conditions make it unsafe to live in congregate shelters, or because of safety concerns in settings with other residents. 

Unsheltered residents who still remain in those communities — some of whom formerly lived at other closed encampments — are questioning why the city is pursuing targeted closure strategies without offering adequate alternatives, especially with many of the city’s pandemic housing resources dwindling and drop-in shelters rarely having capacity. 

“The only real reason for this policy is to destroy the property of individuals such as Plaintiffs, who are homeless and who are regarded by the city as nothing more than garbage to be removed from City streets instead of truly alleviating and mitigating health hazards in the area,” Galtney and Vanderzyl’s lawsuit claims. 

In response to mounting complaints such as those elaborated in the lawsuit, the city has begun drafting a plan to rank encampments into tiers of prioritization of closure based on distinct health and safety risks, rather than approaching the closures on a case-by-case basis usually prompted by neighborhood complaints, encampment size and subjective appraisals of safety risk.

Radu presented a draft plan with a new “homeless policy and good neighbor guidelines” at a public meeting of the Homeless Services Panel of Experts on Oct. 4. 

The draft plan says the encampments for lowest priority of closure will be those in which people:

  1. Throw away their trash and old food. 
  2. Keep their belongings out of the road. 
  3. Do not build any structures out of wood, metal, or other materials that can create a fire hazard or injury risk. 
  4. Try to stay to one sidewalk side of the street. 
  5. Are fire safe.

The draft policy sets these guidelines because “encampments are born of necessity when people have nowhere else to live or store their belongings” and “encampments often create serious impacts to their neighbors and the broader community.”

The encampments that are the city’s highest priority for closure, according to the policy, are those that have the following:

  1. Extreme environmental hazards, including impacts to fish and wildlife and exposure to toxic materials.
  2. Imminent health hazards, including rodents and rodent harborage conditions, syringes, and raw sewage.
  3. Imminent fire or life safety hazards, including, unsafe structures, accumulation of combustible materials, and imminently unsafe location such as a street median or a creekbed in flash flood conditions.

Radu said the Homeless Response Team has worked on a case-by-case level with encampments during the pandemic, and generally prioritized those that pose the greatest risk to their residents and neighbors. 

But his team has pushed the city for more structure to approach the closures as temporary housing resources run low following a pandemic influx. 

“Because we have so few resources, and more need on the street for what to deal with, we need guidance from the city council on what to prioritize and why,” Radu said.

Members of the panel suggested that the city should support encampments with hygiene resources like toilets and dumpsters before penalizing encampments for non-compliance, Street Spirit reported.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...