SETTLES CLAIM OF UNCONSTITUTIONAL HOMELESS SWEEPS
In a deal with statewide implications, Caltrans has agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle claims that the agency illegally destroyed the property of homeless residents camped on its land.
The settlement stems from a lawsuit that was filed after the agency cleared East Bay encampments around its highways and under its overpasses. If the deal is approved, Caltrans will pay $1.3 million to compensate homeless plaintiffs in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville — paying out up to $5,500 per person. Caltrans will pay another $700,000 to the nonprofit Homeless Action Center, plus $3.5 million in attorneys’ fees.
And Caltrans — which a plaintiffs’ lawyer says controls more land occupied by the homeless than any other state agency — would have to take steps to prevent the destruction of property during future sweeps on its land throughout California.
“This settlement would provide statewide relief to thousands of people who are currently at risk of losing their most important belongings, the things they need for survival, simply because they are unhoused,” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which represents the plaintiffs in Sanchez v. Caltrans.
The class action settlement still needs the court’s approval, and is scheduled for a hearing March 10 in Alameda County Superior Court.
Caltrans confirmed the deal in an emailed statement, but did not comment further.
If the deal is approved, it will force Caltrans for at least five years to adopt protections when it conducts encampment sweeps around the state — including providing 48 hours notice, allowing residents to remove their belongings, storing unclaimed belongings for 60 days and giving residents the option to retrieve stored items.
The settlement also would create a pilot program for at least four years in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville that would require Caltrans to take extra steps in those cities, such as providing trash bags to residents before a cleanup and posting permanent signs notifying residents of regularly occurring cleanups.
Della-Piana hopes the changes will inspire other agencies and local governments to adopt similar policies. While the Fourth Amendment protects residents against the unreasonable seizure of their property, different jurisdictions vary widely in how well they uphold those rights when it comes to the homeless, she said.
Candice Elder, founder and CEO of the East Oakland Collective, said homeless people losing their possessions when their encampments are cleared is a “huge problem” in Oakland. She’s hopeful the Caltrans settlement will change that.
“There’s so many people that lose so many belongings when they are forcibly removed from an encampment,” she said. “I think this is setting good precedent — that whether it’s Caltrans, whether it’s the city, whether it’s another agency that’s removing folks — that you have to take care of their stuff.”
This isn’t the first time Caltrans has ended up in court over the way it interacts with homeless residents on its property. In 2006, the Lawyers’ Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union and others sued the agency over sweeps it conducted in Fresno. That case resulted in a $2.35 million class-action settlement, and an injunction forcing Caltrans to give homeless residents notice and allow them to collect their belongings before a sweep.
That worked for a while, Della-Piana said. But the injunction expired after five years, and the lawyers again started hearing complaints, she said.
“There was a veteran who had his walker crushed right in front of him,” Della-Piana said. “People who ended up in the hospital because they lost tents and caught pneumonia from sleeping outside.”
In 2016, they sued again. After more than three years of litigation, Caltrans agreed to a deal.
If the settlement is approved, people who lost property during sweeps in Berkeley, Oakland or Emeryville between December 2014 and October 2019 — including near the Interstate 880-980 freeway interchange in West Oakland, and at the Interstate 80 overpass at Gilman Street in Berkeley — are eligible for compensation. They will have to fill out paperwork to document their claims, but are not expected to have receipts for what they lost.
In addition, the $700,000 Caltrans will pay to the Homeless Action Center will go toward hiring a new staffer to help homeless residents get their belongings back after sweeps and connect them with housing and other services.
“I am hopeful that the changes that we’ve managed to get in this settlement will mean that there will be more respect for homeless people’s property,” said attorney Osha Neumann of the East Bay Community Law Center, who also represents the plaintiffs in the case. “And it would be considered to have the same constitutional status as a BMW parked on the street.”