‘You don’t bulldoze people.’ California highway homeless camps grow dangerousThursday, November 29, 2018
The Sacramento Bee – By Erin Tracy and Adam Ashton
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.
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.”