Wes Venteicher and Erin Tracy
Caltrans has agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle a lawsuit in which the department was accused of violating the constitutional rights of homeless people in Alameda County by seizing their belongings during camp cleanups.
A settlement agreement calls for the department to compensate homeless people for their property and to adopt new procedures for clearing homeless camps around the state.
“It has been forever that the property of homeless people has been considered garbage,” said Osha Neumann, an East Bay Community Law Center attorney representing the plaintiffs. “The people are considered garbage and their property has been considered garbage, and that’s not OK. This says they have the same constitutional protections as anyone else.”
The agreement sets aside $1.3 million for homeless people who had their belongings taken and destroyed by Caltrans from Dec. 13, 2014 through October 2019 while they were homeless in Berkeley, Emeryville or Oakland.
The agreement also dedicates $700,000 to hire someone at the Homeless Action Center, which has offices in the East Bay, to connect homeless people with housing services and to help them manage any property loss in the last three years and in the future.
The agreement includes $3.5 million in attorney’s fees.
Attorneys filed the class-action lawsuit Sanchez v. Caltrans in Alameda County Superior Court in 2016, targeting Caltrans’ homeless “sweeps” of camps on state property.
Caltrans crews posted notices at camps that gave five-day windows in which workers could show up and start removing any items they found.
The people living at the camps faced difficult decisions about whether to stay put for the whole five days or to risk losing all their belongings by traveling for things like medical or social services appointments, court appearances, jobs or interviews, Neumann said.
They lost things like ID cards, medical records, items they inherited, photographs of deceased family members, notebooks with contact information and even, in one case, a cat that was thrown into a compactor in a tent, Neumann said.
“They came in and they were like, you have five minutes,” Patricia Moore, one of the plaintiffs, told The Sacramento Bee in 2018. “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.
Under the settlement agreement, Caltrans workers around the state will post notices at camps 48 hours before the sweeps and provide specific times for them. The workers will be required to store items that appear to be valuable for 60 days to give homeless people a chance to retrieve them.
The agreement puts in place a more intensive pilot program in Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley. For those areas, someone from Caltrans will be reachable by phone during normal business hours to help homeless people find their seized belongings, and the settlement agreement calls for a website related to the seizures, among other requirements.