Unhoused people in the East Bay will be compensated by Caltrans for property that the state agency damaged or destroyed in encampment sweeps, thanks to a newly reached legal settlement.
A class-action lawsuit that began in 2016 is nearing its conclusion after the California Department of Transportation agreed to pay $2 million to reimburse homeless people for lost possessions and employ someone to recover their items and connect them to services. Three people who were unhoused at the time filed the suit, along with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area, the East Bay Community Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the WilmerHale law firm.
In settling the case, unsheltered folk in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville will win new protections when Caltrans clears encampments. One
of them requires Caltrans to post the exact date of upcoming clearances.
“For years we heard complaints of people who told us they had to stand by helplessly while Caltrans crews threw belongings they treasured into trash compacting garbage trucks,” said Osha Neumann, supervising attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center. “Sometimes people with disabilities were given only a few minutes to move everything they wanted to save. We hope, with this settlement, those days are over.”
But how it might help homeless Bay Area residents when Caltrans tags along with City departments in similar operations is not yet clear.
Patrica Moore, known to her community as “Mama Bear,” one of the plaintiffs, was living under Interstate 580 in Berkeley on March 17, 2016, when Caltrans workers unexpectedly arrived at her camp and threw away her cot, sleeping bag, clothing and food. The agency’s usual procedure was to post a notice four or five days before cleaning the area, according to the suit.
But Moore said that Caltrans workers gave the residents only 20 minutes to gather their belongings, before seizing the stuff themselves. They almost threw Moore’s bike in the compactor, too, before a friend of hers prevent- ed them. She reported falling to the ground from exhaustion while trying to save her stuff.
‘The letters or cards that I had… they could never be replaced. It just meant more to me than a zillion dollars.’
“It felt like they were in a war against us,” Moore said when recalling the incident.
Now housed in Berkeley after 10 years on the streets, Moore became unhoused when she was sidelined from her work as a physical therapist, and she now moves around with a cane and a walker. In previous sweeps, she has lost her ID, Social Security card, art supplies and photos of her family.
Moore said no one should be as traumatized as she felt during the sweeps. She had a message to anyone who wants to report encampments or public employees assigned to remove them: “Treat us like your neighbors, not your enemies.”
Caltrans’ practices in encampment sweeps has also been noted on the other side of the Bay. In San Francisco in 2016, a photo of a walker thrown in Caltrans crusher went viral.
The department was also on hand with the California Highway Patrol, San Francisco Police Department and San Francisco Public Works when they took away Crystal’s personal effects in San Francisco’s Bayview District last year. Most sentimental among her possessions was a marble urn containing her father’s ashes. “My brother gave it to me years ago. My dad died 15 years ago and I’ve been carrying them around,” she told the Stolen Belonging project last year (Disclosure: This reporter is a member of Stolen Belonging, an art and advocacy project documenting the loss of possessions—from survival gear to cherished mementos—during encampment sweeps).
“They were at my friend’s house. My friend said he was going to toss them because he didn’t have the space for them or whatever. So, I went down and got them and I’ve been lugging them around, and it’s a heavy ass
urn. I was thinking about just taking them out and keeping them in a bag, putting them in a paper bag or some- thing, but it’s your dad. You can’t really do that… I really miss him.”
Crystal also suggested that staff who conduct sweeps or deal with the homeless population undergo “a training program to instill some type of morals or some type of system for these people.”
When asked how public agencies could compensate people for taking their belongings or otherwise be accountable, Crystal said, “You see a dumpster and all your shit going into the dumpster anyway. You could have $50,000 worth of stuff and everything will go in that dumpster or compactor or whatever. So, I don’t know, com- pensation-wise I would want … If it was a dollar amount… I mean, my dad’s ashes alone and those pictures and stuff … I don’t know. It’s crazy.”
Stolen Belonging also interviewed another San Francisco resident, who wanted to be identified only as Derrick. He also had stuff taken away by Caltrans and city employees when he set up camp on 16th Street. He lost essential items, such as clothing, his sleeping bag and his ID, to the agency. But Caltrans also threw away photos and letters from his late mother.
“The letters or cards that I had, I was saving until hopefully I could either get a storage unit … I don’t know when I’m going to get inside again,” he said. “They could never be replaced. It just meant more to me than a zillion dollars. It’s stuff like that … it’s priceless.”
TJ Johnston is the Assistant Editor of Street Sheet, San Francisco’s street newspaper.