After years of asking for a reliable way to pick up garbage at Berkeley’s Seabreeze encampment, the unhoused community and advocates took things into their own hands. After months of negotiation with Caltrans, organizers and residents struck a deal with the state utility in the Fall of 2019: Once a month, a team of residents and volunteers team up to clean their curbside home, and Caltrans comes in the following day to pick up designated piles of garbage. This tag team effort is one of a kind, and gives the residents the space to clean their own community, keep from losing precious personal items, and avoid displacement. It is also crucial for the health and safety of encampment residents—without regular garbage pickup, rats plague encampments, which is dangerous for residents’ health.Street Spirit tagged along to check out last month’s cleanup, on April 3.
On a hazy Saturday morning, residents of Berkeley’s Seabreeze encampment community and organizers from Where Do We Go Berkeley (WDWGB) gathered together to clean the curbside community, which stretches across several grass islands along University Avenue and under the overpass near the I-80 freeway entrance. As cars whisked down the I-80 feeder ramp, a small crew used rakes and shovels to collect garbage from around the encampment, which they then piled up by the side of the road.
Throughout the day, residents were able to sort through their things and decide what they wanted to keep and what they wanted to discard. The WDWGB crew stayed in constant contact with residents regarding what things were OK to add to the garbage piles. The community’s garbage is picked up the next day by Caltrans, who owns the land along the I-80 corridor.
Matthew “Matty” Henderson, a Seabreeze resident who volunteered to help manage the cleanup, was raking up garbage at the North East island of the encampment when a rat the size of a small cat scurried across his feet.
“They got to go somewhere,” said volunteer Nicholas James, barely phased, who stood nearby. WDWGB hires James to drive the orange track loader that they rent to help gather and move some of the larger items—like mattresses, a trash can, and the wreckage of a small fire that happened the night before—that need to be discarded.
The cleanup was led by Ian Cordova Morales who is the current president of WDWGB, the advocacy group that established the cleanup arrangement. Alongside him was James, Henderson, and Michael Minix—another resident of the encampment who volunteered to help manage the cleanup. All volunteers were compensated for their time with funds raised by WDWGB, according to Cordova Morales.
These monthly cleanups were negotiated in Fall of 2019 by Andrea Henson, founder of WDWGB, and Caltrans. The negotiations came after Seabreeze residents engaged in civil disobedience by refusing to relocate on three occasions when Caltrans came to conduct cleanups. Soon after, the advocacy group submitted an open letter to the city government extending an olive branch to arrange a safe and reliable trash pickup for those at Seabreeze.
Prior to Seabreeze’s current trash arrangement, Caltrans cleanups would occur every two or three weeks. The state-sanctioned cleaups were often disruptive to residents who were forced to relocate for several days or more on short notice. The volunteer and resident led cleanup efforts replace the need for the state agency to come in and disrupt the community.
“Everyone would have to move off the property [while they were cleaning], and you could only move what you could carry, so all your stuff gets thrown in the trash. If you’re disabled or elderly, you have to wait for people to help you,” said Henson. “Everyone involved knew that at the end of the day after all this would occur and these crazy sweeps would take place everyone would go right back to the same land.”
Beyond the inconvenience of routine displacement, these Caltrans sweeps have a long history of wreaking havoc on encampment communities. Hundreds of unhoused residents across Alameda County have reported that during the cleanings, Caltrans employees would seize and dispose of items that were not garbage, including personal possessions and valuables such as family heirlooms, food, medical supplies, tents, sleeping bags, personal documents, and even walkers and other mobility aids.
Longtime Seabreeze resident Matthew “Matty” Henderson recalled a cleanup in September of 2019. “This lady, she couldn’t move without her walker—they took her walker and were throwing it in the garbage pile and it was getting crushed.”
In response, Osha Neumann and several other legal advocates filed a lawsuit against Caltrans in December 2016. The lawsuit, which they won, required the state agency to pay $1.3 million settlements to homeless people who lost their belongings in encampment sweeps. This class action suit is just one of several legal actions that have found Caltrans guilty of negligence, including one instance in which a Caltrans worker fatally crushed Modesto encampment resident Shannon Bigley with a front loader.
“It was almost like you’re being punished for being poor,” Henson said of the aggressive cleanups and lack of access to sanitation services and alternative housing. “You’re being punished for being homeless, punished for not owning property, punished for not being a tenant.”
The community organized cleanups have provided a much needed service—amplified by COVID-19—for safe garbage disposal. Lack of access to reliable garbage disposal services often results in a significant rat infestation and general health and hygiene issues for residents.
“You can’t even have a bowel movement in the dirt and bury it because the rats will dig it up,” said Henson, who encountered the camp’s Norwegian rat infestation while she lived at the Seabreeze community. She confronted City Council about the need for trash services in order to stay healthy and protect the community in her effort to arrange the WDWGB-organized trash pickups.
Ian Cordova Morales, who has been managing the cleanups since taking over for Henson since June last year, also noted the need for steady garbage collection.
“At this point, it’s a method of survival,” Cordova Morales said. “Not just survival in keeping people healthy, but also in keeping them able to stay in the place, because if there’s too much trash, people get angry at them and then kick them out.”
Cordova Morales’s operation is centered around getting as much trash collected and removed as possible without displacing or degrading the integrity of encampment residents and their belongings. Several residents hailed the benefits of having community-led cleanups in lieu of Caltrans led ones.
“Because of what Ian does, he gives us the opportunity to not have to be hassled by Caltrans,” said Seabreeze resident Michael Minix.
Caltrans has set an impending timeline for closure of the Seabreeze community this summer, citing documented hazardous situations as the impetus. Although Caltrans has attempted to evict the camp many times before, Cordova Morales and several residents think that this time could be more serious.
On April 27th, Berkeley City Council voted to approve a contract for up to $1,109,552 with Dorothy Day Housing so that they can build and operate a new shelter at 742 Grayson Street. Though they recognize that a well-operated and supportive shelter would be a tremendous asset to Berkeley’s unhoused, advocates worry that the new center will not be a viable option for many Seabreeze residents, who are used to having the autonomy of living in an encampment community. Additionally, the shelter has limited capacity.
Cordova Morales hopes that the cleanups will help combat the condescending stigma towards encampments, as well as the looming eviction threats from Caltrans and City Council. He emphasized the importance of continued trash service in maintaining the quality of life for residents, who plan to continue to reside in the community—and organize monthly trash pick-ups—for the foreseeable future.
Sabrina Armaghan Kharrazi is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and a former staff member of the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center in Berkeley. Isabella Fertel is a graduate student studying at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism.