CalTrans settles lawsuit over homeless sweeps on state property

Settlement requires agency to give warning before taking property and assist with retrieval

Patricia Moore, 63, has no belongings she’s owned for more than three months.

When Moore lived in a tent encampment under Interstate 580 in Berkeley, workers with the California Department of Transportation would regularly sweep the area — throwing people’s possessions into a trash truck. She recalled sitting in a wheelchair, unable to move her belongings in the five minutes she was given and losing her bicycle, legal paperwork, medical paperwork, art supplies and pictures of her family.

“I just have to remember what my kids looked like when they were little,” Moore said.

When sweeping an encampment, CalTrans often notifies the people there that it will occur within a five-day period, Moore said. This loose time frame, however, has prevented occupants from leaving for the fear of having their belongings taken — and they often must leave to attend their jobs, court summons or appointments with benefits agencies.

But now that is expected to change, due to a lawsuit in which Moore is a plaintiff. On Tuesday, lawyers for unhoused people in California declared victory in a class action lawsuit first filed in 2016 alleging CalTrans destroyed their belongings. A preliminary settlement would require the agency to compensate them $1.3 million for belongings removed from state highway property between December 2014 and October 2019 — and to adopt new policies that will prevent them from destroying property during sweeps.

Homeless advocates hope the new policies imposed on CalTrans will set a precedent allowing others to make claims for property taken during homeless sweeps. Paul Boden, the executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said the settlement adds legitimacy to similar claims by people in areas not impacted by the lawsuit to go to the courts and plead their case.

Across the state, CalTrans will begin to post the specific dates sweeps will occur at least 48 hours before they happen, according to the settlement. CalTrans will also set up a phone number for people to call about their belongings, and the agency will store objects of personal property of apparent value for at least 60 days.

The settlement requires CalTrans to pay the Homeless Action Center $700,000 to hire an outreach person for seven years. The person would assist people in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville with accessing permanent affordable housing and benefits, and retrieving their belongings taken in sweeps by CalTrans.

As part of a four-year pilot project specific to Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville, CalTrans will also post permanent notices stating the specific dates and times clean ups will occur at locations that are cleaned regularly.

In these cities, CalTrans will have a person answering a phone line during regular business hours to help unhoused people get their belongings back. Osha Neumann, a prosecuting lawyer in the suit, called it important because the number of calls unhoused people can make is often limited.

San Francisco has policies on the book requiring the belongings of homeless people that have been removed in sweeps to be stored and made available for retrieval. However, Jennifer Friedenbach, the president of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, said that most of the policies listed in the settlement are not regularly practiced in San Francisco.

It’s not uncommon for Public Works to show up unannounced at an encampment to confiscate property, she said. Also, The City often does not always follow its own “bag and tag” policy requiring employees to store possessions for 90 days, she said.

“The consequences for homeless people are very real: You lose your medicine, you end up dead. You lose your survival gear, you end up sick. You lose your last prized possessions — for a lot of people, you end up losing hope,” Friedenbach said.

If CalTrans violates the settlement, prosecutors could return to the judge in the case to seek redress, Neumann said.

“CalTrans has settled a class action lawsuit brought in 2016 on behalf of individuals experiencing homelessness and homeless rights advocates within the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville,” a CalTrans spokesperson said. “CalTrans will create a $1.3 million fund for those who may have experienced a loss of personal belongings during a department homeless encampment cleanup on the state highway property, and an additional $700,000 will fund other assistance for individuals experiencing homelessness.”

Prosecuting lawyers expect a judge to grant preliminary approval of the settlement March 15, Neumann said.

dhorowitz@sfexaminer.com

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