Solving homelessness shouldn’t be Caltrans’ responsibility

Homelessness is demeaning enough for the unfortunate people who live with it. Their experience can get even worse when they face a disorganized response from a hodgepodge of California public agencies.

A growing number of California agencies and local governmental entities are forced to confront homelessness, a humanitarian crisis that often isn’t suited to agencies’ missions.

The California Department of Transportation is the latest example. The Bee’s Erin Tracy and Adam Ashton reported Thursday that the state’s transportation agency is under increasing fire for how it has handled clearing camps along highways and underpasses -- up to 40 per day.

Over 5,600 complaints have been filed with Caltrans about the camps, citing concerns about used needles, human waste, and other safety concerns.

Caltrans is charged with building and maintaining California’s roads and related infrastructure. Their original mission isn’t finding a workable solution to homelessness, nor should it be policing homeless camps or cleaning them up. And yet, Caltrans now shoulders the blame for its handling of a problem that it has had little training or direction in confronting

Like many other agencies and unlikely institutions such as public libraries, Caltrans has had to bear the brunt of the societal cost of homelessness. The money the agency spends removing camps has tripled since 2012, reaching $12.4 million for the 2017-2018 budget year. There’s no end in sight for the rise.

This burden pushes Caltrans employees into functioning as de facto police, counselors, and sanitation workers.

Not only that, in Modesto, a Caltrans equipment operator accidentally killed a sleeping woman, Shannon Bigley, at a camp off Highway 99, and now California Highway Patrol is investigating.

In Berkeley, a Caltrans employee discarded homeless woman LaTonya West’s purse, which held her credit cards and all of her cash. Imagine how devastating that would be if you had nothing else left.

Caltrans employees are protesting about their increased role in this rapidly escalating problem. The International Union of Operating Engineers, Unit 12, which represents Caltrans employees, filed a labor complaint against the department in April. Workers lack appropriate protective gear, vaccinations, training or enough compensation for the “dangerous hazmat duties they are performing” on Caltrans property, according to the filing. Caltrans rejected the complaint.

To its credit, Caltrans has reached out to local governments to assist them in their efforts to alleviate this crisis, initiating a below-market property lease program so local homelessness nonprofits can assist more easily.

California Transportation Secretary Brian Annis said Caltrans is working on ways to “more systematically address” the problem.

In July, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Caltrans Director Laurie Berman to a statewide commission overseeing homelessness grants and the larger structural housing shortage problem.

While these efforts are laudable, this begs the question: Are we doing enough? There are a lot of suggestions about how to end or minimize homelessness, but the Caltrans experience demonstrates that there are so many other societal and governmental costs incurred when we neglect a comprehensive solution: more costly lawsuits and more danger to improperly or even untrained employees forced to deal with the camps. Those costs add up quickly.

We hope that the next governor and the Legislature act in 2019 to stop forcing Caltrans employees (and other state agencies ) to go beyond their job descriptions.

Cleaning up homelessness isn’t Caltrans’ responsibility. It’s ours.

Editor’s note: this editorial was updated to correct an error. The International Union of Operating Engineers filed a labor complaint, not a lawsuit, over working conditions at the homeless camps.