Under a freeway overpass, beneath a busy bridge, the ragged tents and shopping carts multiply, communities of human beings glimpsed in the rear-view mirrors of passing motorists.
The job often falls to the California Department of Transportation to clean up these homeless encampments, but highway workers have now drawn their own line in the sand.
Last week, the union representing Caltrans maintenance workers filed a grievance against the department, contending that employees responsible for the massive cleanups are not being adequately protected.
In many instances, workers are not given appropriate protective gear, vaccinations, training or enough compensation for the “dangerous hazmat duties they are performing” on Caltrans property, according to the grievance filed by the International Union of Operating Engineers, Unit 12.
“It’s extremely hazardous, it’s extremely dangerous,” said Steve Crouch, the union’s director of public employees, who filed the grievance.
Crouch, who has spoken with numerous workers in the field, said he hears the same lament: “We didn’t sign on for this.”
One Caltrans worker, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said he has been involved in at least six cleanups so far this year.
“I’ve been exposed to blood, needles, women’s feminine products… five-gallon buckets of human feces,” he told The Bee.
His protective gear? A pair of gloves, he said.
“And that’s really not protective,” he quickly added. “It’s funky, and I’m putting this politely. It’s extremely nasty. You never know what you’re going to step in.”
Caltrans spokeswoman Vanessa J. Wiseman issued a statement Friday, saying: “Safety is a top priority for Caltrans and we will carefully review the grievance.”
According to Caltrans’ in-house publication, Mile Marker magazine, the department has spent about $29.2 million cleaning up encampments since fiscal 2012-13. Caltrans estimated the bill in 2016-17 to be more than $10 million – a 34 percent increase over the previous year – and involved all 12 regional districts.
The rising costs coincide with California’s growing homeless population, which increased by nearly 14 percent between 2016 and 2017 to an estimated 134,278, according to the most recent annual report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than half of the nation’s homeless individuals were found in four states: California, New York, Florida and Texas, the report said.
For Caltrans, the typical camp cleanup takes days to complete, beginning with a notification posted at the site at least 72 hours before crews arrive, a recent Mile Marker article stated. Caltrans workers are escorted by state or local law enforcement and, in some cases, social workers and homeless advocates.
In carrying out the cleanups, the department cites the camps’ potential to damage highway infrastructure, contribute to community blight and pose health and safety risks. According to Caltrans, materials routinely found include human waste, spoiled food, animal carcasses, broken glass, toxic chemicals, hypodermic needles and weapons.
In an unusual twist, Caltrans maintenance crews were called last summer to the Highway 65 bypass when Lincoln police officers discovered people living inside the bridge itself. A search revealed makeshift “rooms” inside the bridge that held a mattress and bedding, cooking supplies, rotten food and trash.
Dennis Keaton, a Caltrans spokesman whose region includes Sacramento, said that the people and animals forced out of an area during cleanup often return “in a matter of hours.” Many of the region’s encampments on Caltrans property sprout up along the Interstate 5 and Highway 160 corridors, he said.
“From our standpoint, we have a responsibility to do the cleanup,” he said. “But it’s a thankless job.”
Union leader Crouch said he was not aware of any specific worker injuries but noted that “the potential is there.” San Diego, for instance, experienced a devastating Hepatitis A outbreak last year that swept through the region’s homeless population.
Statewide, the cleanups have sparked anger among some homeless advocates.
In San Jose, protesters gathered in early February at the site of a Caltrans homeless camp sweep at the interchange of Highway 101 and Interstates 280 and 680. The encampment was nicknamed “Googleville” for its proximity to the Silicon Valley giant and other tech companies, blamed by some advocates for the region’s housing crisis.
Sandy Perry, president of the nonprofit Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, told The Bee that about 80 individuals were moved in the sweep about 20 feet over to a sidewalk in the city of San Jose's jurisdiction. Several weeks later, he said, the city did its own sweep and the group was displaced again.
Perry said he believes that many are back on Caltrans property in another location.
"People don't disappear," he said. "They are still alive, and they have to go somewhere.
"It's a real waste of resources. And it's inhumane. People lose a lot of stuff."