When we talk of solving the dilemma of homelessness, typically this is taken to mean that cities want to shelter or house people who lack shelter or housing. But there are other reasons, also, to want to solve the dilemma of homelessness — and two of the most prominent of those, are (1) the financial cost to cities of providing services to the homeless on an emergency rather than a supportive basis when they live in an unstable situation and their untreated substance abuse or mental illnesses results in great expense for the city. (2) The blight, crime, nuisance, public health safety issues associated with illegal encampments, particularly those which are “entrenched” encampments like the Gilman Underpass in Berkeley has been.
The homeless encampment which has been located under the Gilman Street highway underpass is a case in point regarding crime and nuisance. Berkeleyside, a Berkeley publication, has published stories over the years detailing the problems associated with this homeless camp. An article article from April 2014 quotes some of the residents of this camp as stating that the camp had been in existence for many years when part of it was cleared out at that time by CalTrans, the California Highway authority and owner of the property there, after receiving many complaints of crime and obstructed sidewalks. A Berkeley police officer said, ““We get a lot of calls for people drinking, people fighting, and people laying on the sidewalk” under the overpass, said Officer Jeff Shannon, who is among the city and police representatives who began the effort to address the encampment last fall.” In order to address this problem, CalTrans erected a fence in the area, which forced homeless more onto the sidewalk.
In July 2014, as this Berkeleyside article indicates, the city of Berkeley attempted to grant the homeless denizens of this area a “reprieve”, in spite of numerous serious problems with the camp and the fact that it posed a health hazard. ““The camp activity and accumulations continue to contribute to rodent harborage and create a public nuisance,” said then City Manager Christine Daniel.
Homeless people have camped out at the underpass for years, but the situation started to get worse in April when Caltrans fenced off a large portion of the area where many had been living. That forced people to squeeze onto a small strip of land and onto the sidewalk.
The situation was exacerbated when the city of Albany reached an agreement with a long-term homeless community that had been living on the Albany Bulb. Albany paid the group individual payments totaling $24,000 to leave permanently, and hired Berkeley Food & Housing Project to find them housing.
But many of the Albany homeless gravitated to Berkeley and the underpass. In the last few months, as the population has grown, so has the mess. The area is piled with broken bicycles, shopping carts, tents, sleeping bags and mattresses.
Inspections by the city’s Environmental Health Division, on May 22 and June 6, determined that the camp was a public nuisance. The city ordered the people living there to clean it up by June 21.
On July 18th, as reported in this article the City cleaned up the homeless camp, citing a problem with rodents and garbage.
The city manager sent a memo Friday to the Berkeley City Council about the clean-up. She said 1,000 pounds of “garbage, rotting food, hypodermic needles and other debris” were removed from the area during the operation. Read more here. ““It’s not a safe place to live. And the conditions that were developing were certainly not safe.… The goal today was to clean up all of the very serious conditions there.”
While the city was attempting to clean up this site, attorney Osha Neumann, who often represents homeless individuals, was fighting city attempts to clean up the site.
Following their eviction from the Underpass, many of these homeless residents set up tents adjacent to the nearby railroad tracks, as described in this article . This resulted in a great deal of trash and debris piled up along the railroad tracks corridor — yet Osha Neumann had argued this isn’t trash, but it’s the belongings of the homeless. Look at the photos and make up your own mind about what you see.
When the homeless , who often have substance abuse problems or serious mental illness, camp very close to Railroad tracks, this is a dangerous combination, as was exemplified by an October 2013 incident where a homeless man lost a leg after being hit by a train, as reported in this article .
In spite of the efforts of the City and CalTrans to clear out the homeless camp from the Gilman Underpass, the campers returned and remained there for several more years. In June 2016 Caltrans again cleared out the area, as reported in this article . Jim Hynes with the City Manager’s office stated:
… homeless outreach, city maintenance crews, mental health workers and environmental health staff were all on the scene to help out. He estimated that five containers of syringes, some 250 needles, had been removed, along with numerous bottles of human urine…. there were other indications, he said, of rampant heroin use, as well as dead rats and human feces, particularly on the south side of the street.
City residents, whose children use the soccer fields nearby, have complained for years about the camp:
“The Gilman underpass is a disgrace for the homeless and other residents, and leaves our kids who play soccer at Gilman scared and anxious,” said one woman who wrote in recently. “The city does nothing but move that population around every so often.”
Another said he has seen what he believes to be bicycle chop shops, garbage and a growing number of tents in the area.
“When Cal Trans or the City removes the garbage it’s about 4 tons and they all just move right back in,” he said. “They need to go and I have contacted a Caltrans supervisor in this matter as I am sick of it.”
After the city clears up the area under the overpass, the homeless often move just a few yards down the road to the sidewalk nearby. The Gilman camp continued to be the primary homeless camp in the city and the one associated with the most crime and nuisance, as described in this article . There are numerous crimes associated with the camp, as described in that article, by people who refuse all services the city offers:
The sight of people with tents, rugs and chairs amassed on the sidewalk is deeply disturbing to many Berkeley residents. A number of those living there are very dirty. Staph infections are common. So is drug use. In recent weeks, police have made arrests for an assault with a deadly weapon, brandishing a weapon, and sexual assault, said Scott.
“Gilman is a homeless encampment with tents, carts and garbage that looks like a 3rd world country,” one reader wrote to Berkeleyside. “It’s a nightmare that nobody wants to touch.”
Berkeley offers a myriad of services to the 800 to 1,200 or so people who live in the city but don’t have a permanent home. But those around the Gilman underpass are the most service-resistant.
“We hear from many folks that they are aware of the services,” said Scott. “They don’t want them.”
In July 2016, the city set up a new fence to attempt to deter camping at the Gilman underpass, as reported in this article . As if it had not already been difficult enough to deal with this intractable problem over many years, the City and Caltrans faced new problems in their cleanup efforts when the homeless, together with their legal respresentatives at the East Bay Community law Center, were accused of not using the proper procedure in removing debris at the site, as reported in this article .
A stronger fence was erected by CalTrans in August 2016, as reported in this article . Even so, the following week, there were still homeless camped in the area, and police found a hash oil operation and drugs at the camp, as reported here .
In December 2016, CalTrans was sued by civil rights groups over alleged improprieties in its effort to clean up the perennial nuisance, as reported in this article .
In January 2017, the homeless were still camping in this area, and a large fire broke out at the camp, as reported in this article . Not long after the fire, I visited the site and found a great amount of trash and debris on the bicycle path just across the street from the underpass, along with tents actually set up by the homeless in the middle of the bicycle and pedestrian path. I saw food dumped out adjacent to the sidewalk and trash strewn over an area about 100 yards long.
On February 9, I visited the site again and found that the entire area under the freeway had been fenced off by CalTrans, and I saw a man in a day-glo uniform at the site, so I wondered whether CalTrans had finally done what needed to be done and installed a security guard at the site to prevent the homeless from returning, knocking down the fence, and setting up their camp again.
It remains to be seen if this will be effective in curtailing the years-long very serious crime and nuisance and public safety issue that has been associated with the Gilman Homeless encampment.
On February 17 2017, one of the displaced homeless from the Gilman camp had moved up the street, and was arrested by police for going on a rampage, slashing tents and attacking other homeless people in the area with a sword, as reported in this article . Also on the very same day, again right in the area of the Gilman underpass at Highway 80, a pedestrian who’d wandered onto highway 80 near Gilman street, was struck and killed when hit by a vehicle, as reported in this article . It is quite likely this was another of the homeless individuals from this area.
As I hope is suggested by this summary of serious problems at a homeless camp in Berkeley, the fact that a certain handful of people may be “homeless” seems far less relevant a problem, than the amount of crime, nuisance, health hazards, public safety issues, not to mention liability for both the city of Berkeley and CalTrans, which are created by these individuals through the continual nuisance of the camp, and amplified by the misguided attorneys who file lawsuits against cities which attempt to deal as best they can with these serious problems.
The problem of “homelessness” in this case is I believe eclipsed by the social problems associated with the camp. For this reason, I’d argue that it does no good for cities to tolerate such problematic encampments, on the misguided rationale that they represent “freedom” for some people — people who steadfastly refuse all city services provided to the homeless (which in the case of Berkeley are quite generous — see the link to facts on services here: facts here ). Rather, it seems that a better course of action is an early intervention, to act early on and refuse to allow such problematic camps to continue, to abate the nuisance before it becomes so large and widespread and the residents there so entrenched that they hire attorneys to help them maintain persist in maintaining their nuisance. I think that dispersing the homeless into separate areas results in overall less serious impact for the city.
But in general, I think that people who refuse the shelter a city is providing to them, who refuse all city services, and who want to live on public property within that city in such a way that can’t be done without causing serious problems for the city, present a dilemma that more and more cities will need to consider finding more effective methods to cope with. We have seen that doing nothing doesn’t solve the problem, offering services doesn’t solve the problem, offering shelter doesn’t solve the problem, and intermittent/bi-monthly efforts to abate the nuisance, also doesnt’ solve the problem. Something new needs to be tried.
Facts about Berkeley’s homeless population and the services it provides to them can be found here.