A garbage truck with a cooler full of food in the back, about to be crushed by the trash compactor.
A cooler full of food and cooking supplies is trashed during an encampment sweep in October 2021.

Every week the City of Berkeley comes to houses and apartments to pick up garbage, emptying the designated trash bins and driving away. What if, instead of just collecting garbage outside, they came into your home to take items they thought you didn’t need? What if your weekly garbage collectors were escorted by two police officers who stood at your door while employees from Public Works came and took things from your home? Maybe one week, they take your favorite chair. The next week, they take your bedding and clothes. They try to convince you to give up items— do you really need more than one coffee cup? If you’re not home when they arrive and no one is there to witness or speak up, they may take even more. Everything, your belongings, are thrown in a dump truck and crushed. Where would you turn? How can you report a theft when it’s the city and police taking your belongings? Some people don’t have to imagine. This is the reality every week for Berkeley residents living in vehicles and tents on our streets. City employees who are supposed to be providing a service by coming to remove garbage—garbage that residents very much want removed—are instead destroying property, and in the process, eroding trust with residents. Berkeley Copwatchers have documented these “cleanings” at a West Berkeley unhoused community over the last year, though this practice is all too familiar to unsheltered residents across Berkeley. We have documented entire tents, clean blankets, chairs, and food items crunched in the dumpster. We have documented Berkeley Police officers cutting ties for tents and tarps, which is outside their job description and leaves residents with their remaining belongings exposed to the weather. Even when residents have stepped away to the bathroom for less than two minutes, their belongings have been trashed.

The City is so concerned with these areas being “unsightly,” yet at the same time, it has not provided dumpster services for these communities despite their repeated requests.

In 2018, the voters of Berkeley passed Measure P, which was intended to fund “navigation centers, mental health support, rehousing and other services for the homeless, including homeless seniors and youth.” Instead, this tax is now being used to fund the “Homeless Response Team,” using a budget of $938,966 to pay for two Berkeley Police officers and three Public Works employees, as well as liaisons from the City Manager’s Office and a dump truck, to “clean up” the homes of unhoused Berkeley residents.

How can our city help unsheltered residents improve their living conditions when we waste tax dollars meant to house people on destroying their property instead? When you think of “services,” is this what you think of? We all want a safe and healthy city, but it cannot be obtained at the cost of violating people’s civil rights. This is about respect, and treating people with dignity. Unsheltered Berkeley residents are drastically underserved when it comes to mental health and physical health care, food access, employment, housing stabilizing resources, and material survival support.

If you are frustrated by this blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars, contact the City Manager’s Office and your City Council Member to let them know Measure P funds should be used to get people housed. Housing is a necessity, and in the long run, it could save the City millions.

The lack of affordable housing in California has been a mounting crisis for years. Now, the number of people sleeping outside, in doorways, tents, RV’s, and cars is increasing, exacerbated by a global pandemic. Our community must be united and demand real equitable access to resources, health, and safety for all Berkeley residents. This is not an issue that can be swept away any longer. Housing is a Human Right.

Watch the original video on the Berkeley Copwatch YouTube channel: “Garbage Pickup Gone Wrong”

Get active. Be aware. Refuse to be abused.

Berkeley Copwatch is an all-volunteer organization with the goal to reduce police violence through direct observation and holding police accountable for their actions. Formed in 1990, they seek to educate the public about their rights, police conduct in the Berkeley community and issues related to the role of police in our society at large. For more information visit www.berkeleycopwatch.org.