Hundreds seek payouts in lawsuit over Caltrans homeless camp sweeps

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October 20, 2020

Hundreds of homeless people who lost bicycles, tents and even their loved ones’ ashes when Caltrans cleared their East Bay encampments are applying for restitution as part of a multimillion-dollar legal settlement.

Advocates hope that by reaching so many people, the fund will be a step toward protecting the property rights of unhoused residents in the future. But plaintiffs’ lawyers worry they aren’t finding everyone eligible for a payout and say it remains to be seen whether the settlement will lead to long-term changes.

Caltrans agreed in February to pay $5.5 million to settle claims that the agency illegally removed and destroyed the belongings of homeless residents camped on its land — including $1.3 million directly to the people affected. Since then, more than 720 people potentially eligible for payouts have contacted the lawyers on the case, and the legal team has completed at least 300 claims.

“We’re engaged in this monumental process trying to get compensation to all these homeless people,” said attorney Osha Neumann of the East Bay Community Law Center, who represents the homeless plaintiffs in Sanchez v. Caltrans. “I think it’s unprecedented. I’ve never heard of anything similar happening.”

Because the response has been so large, the court agreed to extend the deadline to file claims — originally set for last Friday — to Dec. 14.

The lawyers say they’ve already heard some disturbing stories. At least 30 people who contacted the legal team said they were keeping the ashes of a beloved family member, only to have Caltrans throw the cremains in the trash during an encampment sweep.

This is the third recent lawsuit brought by homeless residents against Caltrans, which controls much of the land where encampments pop up under overpasses, along train tracks and by highway on and offramps. As part of the settlement, Caltrans agreed to allow residents time to remove their belongings during future encampment cleanups throughout the state, and to store items left behind. In the East Bay, Caltrans is supposed to add additional protections such as providing trash bags and posting signs warning of regularly occurring cleanups. And the agency agreed to pay $700,000 to the Homeless Action Center.

Even so, Neumann worries residents lost property when Caltrans cleared an encampment last month at Harrison Street & Santa Clara Avenue in Oakland, under the 580 overpass.

“It looked like a lot of stuff was simply bulldozed into a pile, and that is disturbing that that happened,” he said. “So we’re monitoring that very carefully.”

While Caltrans, like many Bay Area cities, has suspended most encampment cleanups during the coronavirus pandemic, it continues to remove camps that present an “immediate safety concern.”

Asked last week about the recent Oakland sweep and the Sanchez settlement, Caltrans representatives did not respond with a comment before this publication’s deadline.

Under the settlement, people who had their belongings taken by Caltrans between Dec. 13, 2014, and Oct. 31, 2019, in Berkeley, Oakland or Emeryville are entitled to up to $5,500 per claim. But there may not be enough money for everyone.

“I do think that with the numbers we’re seeing, we will exhaust the claims fund, and people may not get the full awards that were hoped for in the settlement agreement,” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which also represents the plaintiffs.

And the lawyers worry many eligible people won’t file a claim. The nine-page form not only asks people to list each item taken by Caltrans and estimate its value but also to list witnesses who saw the items removed and describe the “emotional distress” this caused.

Neumann’s team has dozens of people reaching out to homeless residents to tell them about the settlement and help them fill out the forms. They’ve set up a hotline for people to call about the case.

Neumann estimates as many as 1,500 people could qualify for payouts.

“I think we’re going to miss people,” he said. “That has worried me. I know there are people who I contacted way at the beginning of the case who I don’t know where they are now.”

Michele Magobet estimates she, her boyfriend and her son lost thousands of dollars worth of items when they camped on Caltrans land behind Home Depot in Emeryville. For more than three years, Caltrans workers cleared the camp every few weeks, she said. And even when they gave residents advance notice, Magobet had no car and nowhere else to store her things. When workers showed up, she loaded as much as she could onto an orange Home Depot cart and took it down the street. But at 50 years old and suffering from heart failure, she often couldn’t move everything before workers swept in with trash compactors.

She remembers a time in 2018, shortly after her 19-year-old son died of a drug overdose, when Caltrans workers took her hope chest. Inside, among other things, were 20 blown-glass hummingbirds given to her by a friend, her art supplies and jewelry-making equipment, and paintings she had made.If she gets a payout from the lawsuit, she plans to spend it on a car or a trailer. But more than the money, to her, the settlement is vindication.

“Now you guys have to pay all of us for all of those times we sat there crying, begging you to please not take our stuff and telling you how wrong it was,” she said, “and you just doing it anyway.”

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