Homeless Encampments Along Roadways Raise Concerns and Inspire Creative Solutions

December 4, 2019 Updated: December 4, 2019

The California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, is facing a surge of homeless encampments on its properties.

“Encampments on Caltrans property are often next to high-speed traffic areas and freeways that are unsafe locations for people to live,” Caltrans said in a statement to The Epoch Times. “For the safety of the homeless individuals, the motorists and Caltrans workers, the department must strive to keep the State right of way free of encampments.”

A temporary solution has been to sweep through the properties every week in order to clear out the area. The problem is that just as quickly as signs of encampment are removed, homeless individuals return.

“We’ve provided over 65 tents that were taken by Caltrans during these sweeps,” Andrea Henson, an advocate for the homeless behind the Where Do We Go? Berkeley movement, told The Epoch Times. “They were hit three weeks in a row.”

“Human existence should not be illegal,” she said.

“What we’re asking is that we be left in place, clean around us. Don’t take what we need to survive. There’s no place to go. There’s not enough shelter beds.”

Henson has been spending part of her time residing in the encampment in Berkeley.

“It changed my whole view point on surviving,” she said. “Once I stayed there, I realized how dire this situation is.”

As of Oct. 10, Bart Ney, the chief of public affairs for Caltrans, said that the cleaning and clearing was put to a stop. Still, notices go up informing the homeless that a sweep will occur even though it doesn’t.

“That’s a fair criticism,” Ney told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There isn’t always a notice put up when we are canceling a cleanup.”

In response to The Epoch Times’s inquiry into this matter, Caltrans said, “We work with social services agencies prior to removing any encampment to help find individuals living there find alternate shelter.”

“In areas where shelters or services may be harder to come by, it may take more time to help find alternate arrangements for individuals, which is why we may post a notice and determine it is best to reschedule any maintenance activities,” Caltrans explained.

The issue of homeless encampments on Caltrans property is further complicated by the fact that their employees may not be trained to tackle the problem.

“This is not in their job specifications, this is not a job they were hired to do, nor were they trained or given proper protection and compensation,” Steve Crouch, the director of public employees stationary engineers at Local 39 who represents the workers, told The Epoch Times.

“There’s a lot of biohazard waste, there’s human waste, there’s propane canisters, there’s hundreds of thousands of needles in these camps,” he said. “We filed a grievance with Caltrans that said our people are not given protection, they’re just wearing regular tennis shoes…they’re stepping on needles.”

Crouch said that some Caltrans workers’ shoes had been pierced by needles. In addition, workers had been attacked by homeless individuals and dogs that were “let loose of their leashes to bite the Caltrans workers.”

“We were looking at it from a health and safety perspective,” he explained. “We argued that this is not their job, they shouldn’t be doing it anyway. It’s been a battle between us and Caltrans.”

When this matter was mentioned to Caltrans, they maintained that safety is their “top priority.”

“We bring in hazardous materials specialists to clear anything that could pose a threat to our maintenance crews including hypodermic needles, contaminated materials and biological waste,” they said.

Caltrans also said they provide training for their employees “relating to unsheltered encampments,” referencing “very specific policies” that the employees must follow for their safety.

As for additional compensation that is commiserate with their additional job duties, Caltrans said “wage increases must be negotiated through the collective bargaining process between IUOE and CalHR.”

“We all want to solve this problem,” Stefan Elgstrand, a legislative aide for the mayor of Berkeley, Jesse Arreguin, told The Epoch Times. “It’s a very difficult situation because it is Caltrans property. The city does not have the jurisdiction to go in and address that.”

Elgstrand referenced the fact that the city has taken measures to increase investments in services for the homeless over the last few years—including the STAIR Center that opened in June of last year.

“That’s been, from our point of view, a very successful program,” he said. “It’s helped provide housing to over a hundred people over the first year of its operation. In fact other cities in the East Bay are now looking at that as a model [for their] own navigation centers. I know we spent $2.4 million on that.”

But Henson suggests that the money being thrown at this issue is being insufficiently utilized.

“The City must conduct an audit of the STAIR center by an objective third party and speak to the unhoused in Berkeley about the quality of services, employee behavior, privacy, and safety issues, as well an an accounting of funds spent,” she tweeted on November 12.

Henson says that she was able to provide 50 tents and two porta-potties (“People were crying when we put those in”) for the homeless in Berkeley for $5,000. But, she said, the city was proposing 74 tents and two porta-potties at a cost of $500,000.

“Innovative approaches must be done because the conditions are inhumane, they’re being terrorized, and the things that they need to survive and being taken at every eviction,” she said. “They leave the trash but they pick up the things that basically protect them in the winter.”

Crouch has proposed a solution that he refers to as “a win-win for everybody.”

“What we’ve been trying to do even in Sacramento with the mayor and several council members is looking at taking city property, putting up a fence around [it], and putting up tiny houses for the homeless people,” he said. “And I’ve also suggested [that] the city of Sacramento work in conjunction with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to have inmates build those tiny houses. That way they get training and skills in the construction industry.”

Crouch said there’s a shortage of about 360,000 construction jobs in the United States.

In his ideal scenario, “the homeless get a nice little tiny house to live in where they can keep their belongings, they can lock the door, they can feel safe at night. Inmates in the prisons get the skills they need to go out to the market when they come out of prison.”

For their part, Caltrans says the agency has taken its own steps toward solving the problem.

“Caltrans has created a workforce empowerment program to provide entry-level maintenance jobs to homeless individuals,” the agency said. “The first pilot program is currently underway, where we are working to onboard the first 10 people into new jobs, who are living at a community cabin site on Caltrans property at Mandela Parkway in Oakland.”

“We know that we cannot solve homelessness today, we know that it’s growing,” Henson said. “We need to look at this realistically in order to come up with new solutions, but the most immediate need is that people are freezing, they’re losing their possessions, and we’re terrorizing our most vulnerable.”