Caltrans is perhaps the largest and most high-profile evictor of homeless encampments in California. According to The Mile Marker: A Caltrans Performance Report—the organization’s quarterly progress report—Caltrans estimated that it spent $10.04 million cleaning up homeless encampments in fiscal year 2016-2017. Since 2012, Caltrans has spent about $29.2 million cleaning up encampments.
Obviously, Caltrans should be impacted by Martin v. Boise, because it restricts the conditions under which evictions can be made. According to Martin v. Boise, a government cannot criminalize someone for sleeping on public property if there is no available shelter for them. Laws and ordinances that criminalize homeless people violate their 8th Amendment rights, and constitute cruel and unusual punishment, according to the decision.
But when I asked Caltrans how Martin v. Boise would impact them, they wrote back:
“We are aware of the Martin case, and nothing Caltrans does in this area is done to punish the homeless for sleeping outdoors. Our priority is safety. Homeless encampments in the state right of way have the potential to pose a public health and safety risk for the homeless, our workers and the public. We will continue to work with local social services and law enforcement to address this issue.”
When reminded of the high-profile Caltrans evictions like those in Berkeley and San Jose, Caltrans responded:
“As stated previously, our top priority is safety. Homeless encampments in the state right-of-way have the potential to pose a public health and safety risk for the homeless, our workers and the public. We will continue to work with local social services and law enforcement to address this issue.”
According to Mile Marker, the public submitted more than 5,600 complaints about homeless encampments through Caltrans’ Customer Service Response system (CSR). How many of the 5,600 complaints do you think were mainly about the safety of the homeless?
The CSR often dehumanizes people in the encampments by treating them like public nuisances. The CSR lists them as a problem to be removed like trash and debris as well as potholes and graffiti. Only the number of complaints about potholes and graffiti exceeded the number of complaints about homeless people.
Can Caltrans continue to use “safety” as an excuse to evict all homeless people sleeping on its properties? The CSR criminalizes the people living in these encampments by naming the encampments “illegal.”
In light of Martin v. Boise, Caltrans should revise its CSR. But when I asked them about this, they seemed to have other plans:
“We understand the concern, but this remains a safety issue. Technically, any encroachment in the right-of-way, including camping, is prohibited and considered illegal. We will continue to work with local police and social services to address this issue.”
Here, the issue of safety is being used to justify the actions they take to criminalize homeless people.
In fairness, Caltrans says they are working to improve its response to the encampments. According to Mile Marker, Caltrans “is now working with officials in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose to allow those cities to locate transitional shelters within state rights of way.” For example, the City of Oakland is working on placing Tuff Sheds on Caltrans land. However, this is only a temporary fix—and it is one that many unhoused people have deemed inadequate. The money Caltrans spends on clearing encampments would be better invested in permanent housing for homeless people. In the meantime, Caltrans should take note that the justifications they have often used to evict homeless people from their land may no longer hold up in court.
Kheven LaGrone is a writer and activist who lives in Oakland.