Caltrans settles claims of unconstitutional homeless ‘sweeps’ for $5.5 million

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.

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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.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Caltrans settles claims of unconstitutional homeless ‘sweeps’ for .5 million