Tuesday, April 9

‘Where do they expect us to go?’ Life at one Bay Area encampment before eviction | California

“I just don’t know where to go.”

Sarah sighed as she looked past her tent off the I-80 highway, at the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

Sarah and her partner, Kevin, both 55, have lived in the scattered encampments along this stretch of busy highway in Berkeley, California, for years now. They’ve had to pack up several times, moving from one camp to the next as authorities cleared plot after plot.

Last month, a federal judge ruled officials could remove the last remaining tents by 4 May. And Sarah, whose last name the Guardian is withholding because she could face legal barriers to housing, has had to draw on every particle of poise she possesses to keep from falling apart.

In many ways, the plight of this encampment is the story of homelessness in California.

Its residents have been evicted several times over the past years, disassembling and reassembling their lives each time. Of the dozen or so remaining residents, nearly everyone has health issues that make staying at a temporary shelter difficult or impossible. Many have spent years on waitlists for subsidized apartments but are nowhere near to landing a stable home, often getting lost trying to navigate the labyrinth of social service and health systems available to them.

“It’s impossible, even for me,” said Sarah, who briefly worked as a caseworker for unhoused people before she ended up in the encampment herself. “So when they say we have to relocate, where do they expect us to go?”

‘So much goes into survival’

More than 150 people once lived in this cluster of camps along the grey-blue waters of the bay.

Over the years, tents and tarps came to dot the islands of dirt in between the highway on- and off-ramps that vibrate with the passing traffic. To access drinking water and electricity, residents make daily, perilous journeys around the tangle of roads. The camps on one side of the freeway have access to a portable toilet, but those on the other don’t.

“There’s so much that just goes into, like, survival out here,” Sarah said, squinting through her rectangular, rimless glasses at the spread of camps. She relies on her experience with the Peace Corps, advising her neighbours on how to stay warm and tend to wounds, she said: “Out here, you just feel like you’re hanging on by your fingernails.”

Last summer, the state transportation agency, CalTrans, and local authorities began evicting the encampments, first to make way for the construction of an apartment complex, then arguing the remaining tents and their inhabitants were a risk to drivers.

When the agency cleared out the camps beneath the underpass in August, the California governor, Gavin Newsom, showed up. Wearing gardening gloves, he dug through the debris alongside CalTrans cleanup crews. “What you see here is unacceptable,” Newsom told news cameras. “This is a high safety risk, a public health risk. There are hundreds and hundreds of rats running around. People should not live in conditions like this and we’ve accepted it too long.”

Part of the encampment near the I-80 highway. Authorities started clearing the first tents last summer.

Newsom’s office said that the state was moving people out of the area and into safer housing. About a third of encampment residents moved into shelters or housing, according to the non-profit Where Do We Go Berkeley, which advocated for Sarah and her neighbours in the case against Caltrans. But several residents said they had never heard from caseworkers. And for many of those who did, their disabilities made it all but impossible to live in the congregate shelters or motels that officials were offering.

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Kevin, who has been unhoused for more than two decades and whose legal name the Guardian is withholding so as not to jeopardise his chance for housing, was offered a place in the emergency shelter near the encampment – a warehouse lined with small tents where individuals and couples could sleep – but he couldn’t accept, he said. He has depressive disorder and other mental health issues including agoraphobia and claustrophobia.

“I can’t even get into an elevator if there’s more than two people in it. Being packed in, shoulder to shoulder, with 50 other people would send me into a complete meltdown,” he said. “I get panic attacks. It makes me extremely nervous.”

He had been honourably discharged from the navy decades ago, in part due to his mental health issues, but his conditions were exacerbated when his wife died in the mid-90s, he said. “After that, I had no desire to get back into society,” he continued. “Until I met Sarah,” he added.

After Kevin declined a spot at the shelter, the couple scarcely heard from local housing services again, Sarah said. So they gathered up what they could carry and moved across the highway on to a secluded patch of land by the Berkeley Marina. Now, they are being evicted again. “They can’t push us any further out of town without us getting our feet wet in the bay,” Kevin said.

A woman holding a blue lollipop sits for a portrait
Tenants are being evicted. Many, including Sarah, have nowhere to go.

Alhondro Meyers, 44, who lives next to the couple, said he’d rather struggle at the encampment than struggle with his mental health in a shelter. After he spent four and a half years in prison, where Meyers said faced daily violence from guards, the bunk-style sleeping arrangements and curfew rules at shelters trigger memories from the worst years of his life. “It would be the worst place for me to be,” he said.

Out by the marina, Meyers said, he is able to soothe his trauma with long walks or bike trips and by listening to Jill Scott in his headphones.

Terry Walker Jr, 45, who had been camping off the I-80 for six years, recently traded in his double mattress set up off the marina for a tiny tent and sparse bedding at the shelter. Sleeping on the floor hurts his broken jaw, and the crowded quarters aggravate his anxiety disorder – making it impossible for him to sleep through the night.

‘Shelters don’t have the resources’

All across California, people are facing challenges similar to those of the I-80 campers. The state’s estimated 161,000 unhoused people are disproportionately likely to have physical and mental disabilities – and vice versa. A 2019 report by the University of California, Los Angeles, found that unsheltered people are more than four times as likely as sheltered people to report a physical health condition and nearly one and a half times as likely to report a mental health condition. Across the US, 84% of unsheltered people reported physical health issues, and 78% reported mental health issues.

For those with mental health conditions, crowded shelters designed to fit in as many people as possible are often infeasible. Others with physical disabilities and chronic illness may not be able to comfortably navigate or sleep at makeshift congregate facilities.

A woman seen from behind adjusting her hair
A resident who came to the encampment in recent months.

Most temporary housing and shelters across the Bay Area and California are “truly inaccessible to many”, said Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.

Kushel said that she often hears from shelter operators that the buildings they occupy tend to be older, built before ADA rules were enacted – leaving older, disabled people, including those using walkers and wheelchairs, struggling to navigate the space. Staff at shelters are also often untrained and unaware of the best ways to support people with a range of mental, physical or substance use conditions. “And for many who have been in the justice system, going to a shelter can feel like going back to jail,” she said.

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“Shelter operators are doing their best, but they don’t really have the resources to provide for people with multiple disabilities,” she said. “They don’t have the physical space, or the staffing.”

Even so, housing someone at a shelter costs about $100 a night, or $3,000 a month, she noted. Government agencies also spend millions evicting and clearing encampments. For the 2021-2022 fiscal year, CalTrans was allocated $25m to “clean up encampments”, $20.6m for the removal of hazardous materials from encampments, and an additional $2.7m for “encampment relocation coordination”.

“We continue to invest in criminalising homelessness, funding interim measures like shelters, rather than getting to the root of this problem – which is lack of housing,” Kushel said.

A woman with black hair and green eyeshadow
Kinndra, a plaintiff in the CalTrans suit, is among the residents who finds herself with nowhere to go.

The governor’s office referred questions to CalTrans.

When governments instead invest in shelters and solutions designed more for “people with housing who don’t want to look at the suffering around them, than for those who are actually suffering, we can’t be shocked with the problem isn’t solved,” she added.

Project Roomkey

Encampment residents who were assigned a room via Project Roomkey, a state program launched at the start of the pandemic to get motel rooms for unhoused people, said that regulations at the facilities made it difficult to stay there.

Detroit Rodriguez, 46, got a spot at the Rodeway Inn, a Roomkey motel specially designated for people who were “medically fragile” amid the Covid-19 pandemic. But he hardly spends any time there, he said, only stopping in for 30 minutes each day to shower.

Rodriguez, who was shot point-blank in the hand and stomach a year and a half ago, has had to use a colostomy bag ever since. On several occasions, especially when he has been out at night diving through dumpsters to collect glass and metals he can trade in for cash at recycling facilities, the bag has ripped open – leaching stomach acids all over his abdomen. “It is excruciating pain,” he said.

But the Project Roomkey facility has a strict curfew, and staff has repeatedly refused to allow him back inside after hours, he said, even to clean himself up or get a replacement bag, he said. The leaks have caused skin irritation and infections, which in turn have forced Rodriguez’s doctors to delay his colostomy reversal surgery by months, he said.

“They just have no compassion or sympathy over there,” he said.

A large development project seen in the background of deflated tents and mattresses on a lawn
Some encampment residents have been assigned rooms via a program launched at the beginning of the pandemic.

The Alameda county office of homeless care and coordination, which oversees the Roomkey motels, said that it follows up “in all cases where complaints are filed through the hotel or through the providers, including working with management on special accommodations”. Noemy Mena-Miles, a spokesperson for the office, said that the “top priorities for Project Roomkey residents include bridging medical care, linkages to services, and referrals to care in a safe, non-congregate setting”.

For Rodriguez, who has also experienced bouts of debilitating depression and post-traumatic stress after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, being isolated from his friends and community at the encampments wasn’t ideal either. Gesturing toward the collection of tents, he added: “Really, you got all these people out here who just hit hard times. And when you fall down, sometimes it’s hard to get back up.”

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Clashes with the state

Since last year, only a fraction of encampment residents have found housing.

Despite local and state programs that prioritise disabled and medically vulnerable people for housing, it can take years for unhoused people to find a place in a state with a staggering shortage of affordable homes.

Kevin has been on a list to receive permanent supportive housing for years. And Sarah, who also has depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and an intestinal condition, is considered among the most vulnerable to complications from Covid-19. But even after more than a decade of living on the streets, neither has gotten any closer to finding a safe, indoor place to live.

For some of their former neighbours who have found an apartment or room at a suitable shelter, the process has often boiled down to luck and tireless advocacy by local non-profits and lawyers. “It takes a lot of time to find accommodations and services,” said Andrea Henson, a lawyer with East Bay Community Law Center representing the encampment residents. “And when you do evictions and disperse an encampment, that causes even more delays because it can be hard for us and for caseworkers to find everyone again.”

That’s what Henson and other lawyers working with Where Do We Go Berkeley argued in order to secure a preliminary injunction last October, which prevented CalTrans from evicting residents for six months. Many of those living in the area, including disabled and chronically ill people who were at heightened risk for complications from Covid-19, had already been struggling for years to secure housing, the non-profit argued. Pushing people away from their friends and community, and scattering them across the region, would make it even more difficult for them to stay safe and access the health and social services they need.

A woman with short hair and glasses rests her hands on her face
Andrea Henson, an attorney representing encampment residents. Photograph: Preston Gannaway/The Guardian

Newsom personally defended the transport authority, arguing the lawsuit had been “preventing CalTrans from delivering on important efforts aimed at revitalising California’s streets and public spaces through litter abatement and local beautification projects”.

This April, a federal judge ultimately ruled that the transit agency could carry out the eviction. The unhoused residents living there “are already experiencing homelessness”, the US district court judge Edward Chen ruled. CalTrans “would not be making them homeless through the closure of the encampments.”

In a statement last week, CalTrans said it was grateful for the ruling, which would allow it to “maintain the state’s roadway infrastructure for [the] safety of travellers and to ensure people experiencing homelessness are not in unsafe and unhealthy encampments”.

Janis Mara, a spokesperson for the agency, also said that CalTrans would continue its work with city and county agencies “to move people out of dangerous encampments and into housing and services” but did not elaborate on how.

Encampment residents told the Guardian that they had not received any new offers for suitable shelter ahead of the 4 May eviction.

Woman in mint green hoodie looks out towards water
Sarah waits for traffic to clear in order to cross over an I-80 off-ramp back to her camp.

Meanwhile, California lawmakers and the governor are proposing court-ordered treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues as part of the state’s solution to the homelessness crisis. The plan is facing scathing opposition from disability and civil rights groups, who say that the money and resources allocated to such a program should be redirected to providing people with disabilities access to affordable housing.

Days before crews were due to clear out their camp, Sarah said she was teetering between tears and rage. She had barely begun to pack all the gear that they had salvaged and accumulated over months and years to survive out by the marina, or think through how the couple might Tetris their bed, their tent, their small solar panel and pots and pans on to the backs of their bikes.

“How do I get motivated to pack when I don’t even know where we’re moving?” she said. “I’m just exhausted.”


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