California Agency Accused of Targeting Homeless People

(Photo: Kristina Patenio)(Photo: Kristina Patenio)

Across the nation, plunging temperatures are making many Americans huddle under blankets with the heater on full blast. One group doesn’t have that luxury, though: the homeless community.

For homeless people in the US, winter weather isn’t just unenjoyable — it can be deadly. Many must sleep in the rough due to lack of shelter space or other issues that keep them out in the extreme cold.

They often rely on a just handful of possessions to keep themselves safe and insulated — and even in frigid temperatures, law enforcement may seize the very blankets that keep them warm.

Unfortunately, “homeless sweeps” — in which belongings are seized and destroyed — are common across the nation, but homeless people are continually fighting to change that fact.

A suit filed in an Alameda County Court last week alleges that CalTrans — the California agency charged with building and maintaining California’s roads, bridges and rails — violated the Constitution based on its treatment of homeless encampments near roadways.

Several civil rights organizations are working with homeless advocates to file the suit, highlighting practices they argue aren’t just callous, but could actually be illegal. If they prevail, the case may change the face of policy and enforcement across the massive transit agency.

The claimants charge that CalTrans descends upon encampments with little or no warning, seizes people’s possessions and crushes them in trash compactors right in front of their eyes.

One homeless man claims that CalTrans crushed his cat in a compactor despite his attempt to intervene, driving home the risks of living homeless with pets.

When people have tried to protest, California Highway Patrol officers have threatened them with tasers and batons. Along with tents, sleeping bags and other belongings necessary for survival, homeless people have lost the tools they use to support themselves — not to mention family photos and other priceless possessions.

The suit alleges that this practice violates the Constitution — as well as California law — and inflicts emotional distress.

In cases where belongings have been seized but not destroyed on site, the claimants say, CalTrans doesn’t provide a mechanism for getting them back, and attempts at contacting the agency are ignored.

That makes being homeless in California even more dangerous, as people never know when everything but the clothes on their backs may disappear into the abyss.

Homeless people have filed claims with the agency and sued in the past. The suit notes that CalTrans has openly admitted that the practice of seizing and destroying belongings is effectively unspoken policy at the agency. Consequently, they’re seeking class action status, arguing that a systemic pattern affects homeless people across Alameda County — and California.

CalTrans states that while it does seize property, it posts warning notice in advance, and holds valuable possessions for people to reclaim.

But the suit alleges that this isn’t in fact the case. The agency has reportedly turned up before the times posted on notices and taken everything before people had a chance to remove it.

Additionally, CalTrans routinely fails to respond to calls or check belongings to ascertain their value before throwing them out. For example, one plaintiff maintains that the agency destroyed a gold necklace along with items like nail polish and a camp stove.

Over the summer, a CalTrans employee was accused of slashing tents and bicycle tires during a sweep, though the agency asserted that an internal investigation disproved the claims.

Officials claim such sweeps are necessary for public safety and hygiene, citing finds of used needles and human waste.

The battle over how to handle the homeless community in the Bay Area has occupied headlines for years, with a large number of stakeholders and complicated questions at hand.

Many of the homeless people involved in such sweeps have spoken out about feeling dehumanized and disenfranchised by the seizure of their belongings — and more than a few say they’d trade a front door for a tent zipper in a heartbeat, if the option was available to them.