In tears, LaTonya West begged to dive into a trash compactor and search for the purse she believed a Caltrans employee had just tossed into the machine.
West, homeless for the past 15 years, knew that losing her handbag would be a severe setback. She’d need weeks or months to get a new credit card and build the kind of cash she’d kept with her. She pressed a Caltrans supervisor leading a cleanup of the roadside camp in Berkeley where West lived that June afternoon.
“I asked him, ‘Please, it has everything I need,’” she remembered. “He looked so sad. He said, ‘It’s too late.’ I was in tears and I said, ‘That’s a shame.’”
West, 47, lost her purse in what’s become a routine task for Caltrans as the state’s highway department copes with its share of California’s homelessness crisis.
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All over the state, the department is clearing as many as 40 camps every day along highways and underpasses, aiming to keep roads free of hazards and to clean up sites that can collect trash and hazardous waste.
The task sounds straightforward, but the program grew dangerous and expensive as the state’s homeless population swelled since the recession. Caltrans now is beset by complaints from homeless Californians, climbing spending and grievances from the department’s own workforce.
- In August, a Caltrans worker clearing a Modesto homeless encampment near Highway 99 killed a sleeping woman, Shannan Bigley, by hitting her with a heavy machine. No one has been charged with a crime in the incident, and the California Highway Patrol investigation remains open. Her family has filed a claim for damages against the department and is pressing the state to disclose more details about how she died.
- The amount of money Caltrans spends on contracts to clear homeless camps more than tripled since 2013, rising to $12 million in the 2017-18 state budget year.
- Caltrans’ own employees are raising alarms about the risks they face when the department sends them into encampments. Their union in April filed a grievance seeking more training and protective equipment. Since then, workers it represents have filed complaints about dog bites and exposure to human waste.
Caltrans acknowledges the cleanups are not a lasting solution to homelessness. It’s supporting local efforts in several cities around the state to lease state property to nonprofit organizations that work with homeless people.
Meanwhile, it’s fighting a class-action lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court that demands it halt its cleanup program until it can negotiate a safer method to clear the sites.
“The real problem is there’s no place for people to go. Caltrans has to come to grips with this,” said Osha Neumann, an attorney for the East Bay Community Law Center. “They have to deal with this in a rational way, just like they do with earthquakes. This is a man-made disaster.”
‘The goal is not to evict them’
Caltrans interacts with the state’s homeless population because it is responsible for maintaining California’s 254 state highways. Homeless people, who are often pushed from private property and public parks, wind up sleeping on roadsides and under bridges.
“The goal is not to evict them,” said Melissa Figueroa, spokeswoman for the state Transportation Agency. “The goal is to move them from a place that may be unsafe.”
Last year, Caltrans received more than 5,600 complaints about roadside camps. Local governments and residents have raised concerns about human waste, needles and other drug paraphernalia at encampment sites.
California Transportation Secretary Brian Annis said Caltrans employees take pains to do the cleanups “humanely” and with “empathy.” California Highway Patrol officers are assigned to cleanups, and notices posted at the sites include the phone numbers of local homeless shelters.
“There are procedures to follow, and (the workers) are trained in that procedure and it includes safety considerations for the employees,” he said.
But on the ground, homeless Californians and former Caltrans employees say the cleanups can unfold in a chaotic manner that defies policy.
“In all of the years I was there, we never actually attended a homeless removal training,” said Richard Bartlow, who worked for Caltrans for a decade in the early 2000s and now advocates for its employees as a representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers. The union in recent months has put forward complaints about a dog biting a worker in Los Angeles and state employees stumbling upon human waste in Placerville. The department has acknowledged that homeless Californians will move right back onto state property as soon as the crews leave.
“We’re not fixing anything. We’re just temporary Band-Aids,” Bartlow said.
‘This is my home.’
LaTonya West, the homeless woman who lost her purse last summer, says she needs time to move her shelter alongside the University Avenue exit ramp off Interstate 880 in Berkeley.
She patches tarps together in a manner that seems to give her a full apartment. Her kitchen is a gas grill with a set of propane tanks. She has two leather couches and a pair of wooden chairs in her living room.
She moves everything – from tarps to propane tanks and the vegetables in her kitchen – when Caltrans comes.
“This is my home. It’s everything I got, so it’s important to me,” she said.
She filed a claim against Caltrans with Neumann’s help last summer after the incident in which she said a Caltrans employee tossed her handbag into a trash compactor.
According to the claim, Caltrans workers arrived later than usual that afternoon – so late that West had convinced herself they weren’t coming at all and began to rebuild her home. She was mistaken.
Patricia Moore, 62, has been homeless for much of her life and slow-moving since a 2013 car accident damaged her left leg and left her disabled.
Like West, she tried to gauge when Caltrans employees were most likely to show up when they posted a notice about a pending cleanup. She’d take down her tent, fold her cot and move off Caltrans property when she knew it was time.
She paid a harsh price when she misjudged Caltrans’ schedule.
“They came in and they were like, you have five minutes,” she said. “They just start grabbing and tossing, and if you want to salvage anything you have to move as fast as you can.
“And while you’re doing it, they’re taking it out of your hands,” she said.
Caltrans’ policy for clearing homeless camps asks workers to be respectful, to avoid seizing belongings of apparent value and to preserve any items that someone might want to reclaim.
In practice, union representatives say, the work can be traumatic for both homeless residents and state workers.
“You’re throwing peoples’ stuff away, and they’re sitting there looking at you,” said Deric Barnes, another Caltrans union representative who cleared roadside homeless camps when he worked for the California Conservation Corps. “You grow callous. You’re just showing up, throwing the stuff away and leaving.”
A history of lawsuits
Caltrans has faced complaints about its procedures for clearing homeless camps in the past.
Homeless advocates sued the department in 1992 and again in 2006, compelling Caltrans to take greater care first in notifying homeless people about impending cleanups and in safeguarding possessions that state workers obtained at the sites.
Caltrans and the city of Fresno paid $1.5 million to settle the 2006 case, with Fresno paying most of the money. Some homeless Californians received more than $33,000 to compensate them for distress and for belonging they lost in camp cleanups, according to court records.
After the lawsuit, advocates say Caltrans tended to closely follow its written policy for cleaning up homeless camps. Crews posted notices three days before they planned to clear a site, and showed up at the appointed time.
As years passed, homeless people and their advocates found that Caltrans crews would arrive at sites hours or days after the time specified on a notice. That trend confused homeless residents, who wanted to wait as long as possible before moving their belongings.
Now, advocates say, homeless people are again losing invaluable possessions during cleanups. Over the past three years, more than 100 people have filed claims with Caltrans for damages stemming from the cleanups, according to records obtained by McClatchy through the California Public Records Act.
Those claims are central to the class-action lawsuit in Alameda County, where attorneys for homeless people argue that Caltrans is violating the Fourth Amendment by seizing private property at homeless camps. The amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
“When we first heard Caltrans was violating the law again, I was a little disbelieving; I believe the best in our government. I was surprised, and then we heard it over and over again.”” said Elisa Della-Piana, an attorney from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights who was involved in the 2006 lawsuit and in the Alameda County case.
Caltrans does not dispute that its crews sometimes arrive well after the time specified on a posted notice. “We strive to start the cleanup immediately after the posted time on our advance notices. However, due to emergencies and shifting priorities, that’s not always possible,” Figueroa said.
The department is taking a hard line in court. It argues that homeless Californians on state property have no privacy rights and no protected property rights while they are “residing illegally on government property,” according to a November court filing.
No answer for Modesto woman’s family
It’s not clear yet exactly what happened in Modesto on Aug. 1, when a Caltrans employee struck Bigley, 33, with a heavy machine in a grassy ravine near Highway 99 and Kansas Avenue.
A Caltrans crew in early November returned to the site for the first time since the death.
Two large machines scooped up piles of trash and other material while several men raked it up on hillsides the machines couldn’t get to. A CHP officer parked on the top of the small ravine in which Bigley died.
The homeless there gathered what belongings they could before the work started. One man said he briefly left a pile of items on the sidewalk outside the camp and returned to find it had been taken by the crew. He stood and watched from the other side of the highway as the crew worked.
Bigley’s family wants to know what happened.
Caltrans and the State Transportation Agency won’t answer questions about it and initially would not confirm that a state employee had a role in causing Bigley’s death. Her family is still asking.
“Shannon’s father and his wife are really upset because they were promised, months ago, answers to their questions, such as what went wrong and the specifics of how she died. Our attempts at getting information have been stonewalled,” said their attorney, Eric Khodadian.
He doesn’t know yet whether Caltrans posted a notice before the cleanup that led to Bigley’s death.
“Regardless of whether there was or was not notice, or whether the notice was sufficient or not, it is pretty clear that you don’t bulldoze people,” he said.