Homeless Californians Adapt to Camp Sweeps and 'The Caltrans Shuffle’

Every other week, Norm Ciha and his homeless neighbors temporarily relocate their camp from land alongside a freeway off-ramp in Oakland, Calif., to a nearby vacant lot, until state cleanup crews have come and gone. They call it “the Caltrans Shuffle.”

Every other week, Norm Ciha and his homeless neighbors temporarily relocate their camp from land alongside a freeway off-ramp in Oakland, Calif., to a nearby vacant lot, until state cleanup crews have come and gone. They call it “the Caltrans Shuffle.” Kaiser Health News/Anna Maria Barry-Jester

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Every other week, people living on state land near a freeway must pack up for a California Department of Transportation cleaning, which can often result in losing crucial belongings.

OAKLAND, Calif. — It’s 5 a.m., and the thermostat reads 44 degrees. Cars round the bend of an off-ramp of state Route 24 in northern Oakland, spraying bands of light across Norm Ciha and his neighbors. They wear headlamps so they can see in the dark as they gather their belongings: tents, clothes, cooking gear, carts piled with blankets, children’s shoes and, in one case, a set of golf clubs.

Shredder, Ciha’s dog, takes a treat and then lets it fall from his mouth. He whines as Ciha walks away with a camping mattress. “I can leave him all day in the tent and he’s fine, but he freaks out every time we have to move,” Ciha said.

Every other week, the residents of this thin slice of state-owned land just off the freeway pack up their possessions and move to another empty lot nearby that they aren’t quite sure who owns. They do it in anticipation of the routine homeless sweeps ordered by the California Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the state’s highways and exit ramps.

The highway crews check that the area is clear of people and their belongings, throwing away any items that remain. Once the trucks leave, the residents move back in. Ciha and his neighbors call it “the Caltrans Shuffle.”

Ciha says he lost his bedding, clothes and hepatitis C medication during a homeless sweep in November 2018. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/KHN)

Their makeshift neighborhood of tarps and tents is built on one of thousands of public spaces across California where people have set up camp. The state’s homeless population has ballooned in recent years; in 2019, there were more than 150,000 homeless people in California, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and 72% of them did not have shelter. A range of health concerns has spread among homeless communities. A few years ago, hepatitis A, spread primarily through feces, infected more than 700 people in California, most of them homeless. Ancient diseases such as typhus have resurged. Homeless people are dying in record numbers on the streets of Los Angeles.

Communities up and down California, increasingly frustrated with the growing number of homeless people living on public property, have tasked police and sanitation workers with dismantling encampments that they say pollute public areas and pose serious risk of fire, violence and disease. The roustings and cleanups have become a daily occurrence around the state, involving an array of state and local agencies.

But the response from officials has prompted a public health crisis all its own, according to interviews with dozens of homeless people and their advocates. Personal possessions, including medicines and necessary medical devices, are routinely thrown away. It’s a quotidian event that Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, described as a “cruelty” that she hadn’t seen in other impoverished corners of the world.

Ciha, 57, learned the hard way that living on the street means his belongings can be taken in an instant.

Ciha says his dog, Shredder, hates the recurring moves: “I can leave him all day in the tent and he’s fine, but he freaks out every time we have to move.” (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/KHN)

In November 2018, when he was camping by an Ikea in nearby Emeryville, the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans showed up unannounced. He was out buying a tent when they arrived, and the crew designated his belongings as garbage. His fellow campers protested and grabbed what they could. Ciha returned and asked for time to gather his things, but said they were thrown into a compactor.

Along with his bedding and clothes, he lost three weeks of an eight-week supply of the medication he was taking to treat hepatitis C. He’d gotten the drugs through Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program. Though the drugs were almost certainly purchased at a discount, his course of treatment retails for around $40,000.

In 2018, a federal court case involving a camping ban in Boise, Idaho, determined that cities can’t cite people for sleeping on public property when there’s nowhere else to go. It doesn’t, however, determine rules about possessions. That question has been argued for decades, with multiple courts determining that destroying or confiscating property without notice is a violation of the constitutional right to personal property. Unlike the Boise case, cities rarely, if ever, fight those decisions, which means that precedent has not been set by a higher court.

Ciha cleans up around the strip of public land where he has camped the past 14 months. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/KHN)

Lawsuits in California have made the issue more visible in the state than in other places, even though this is a nationwide problem, said Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Today, many California cities have policies that either prevent seizing belongings or require storage, but public health and safety exceptions often allow for things to be thrown away without notice. “If cities spent half the energy on trying to provide access to sanitation as they did on trying to find constitutional ways to take people’s belongings, they could address homelessness,” Tars said.

The city of San Francisco contends that it stores people’s belongings when they are seized, the result of a settlement from an earlier lawsuit. Homeless advocates say that isn’t always true.

Chris Herring, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California-Berkeley, has embedded himself in San Francisco’s homeless community on and off for years, including spending nine months in 2014 and 2015 living on the street and a year studying the police, public health and sanitation workers tasked with cleaning encampments. He said he has witnessed people refusing medical help because they didn’t want to leave their things behind and knows others who lost jobs after missing shifts to salvage personal items. An elderly man, so ill he lay paralyzed on the sidewalk, once called Herring and asked him to look after his stuff before he called 911.

Los Angeles has limited the amount of personal property people can carry with them or store on public property, saying it must fit in a 60-gallon container, the equivalent of a medium-sized outdoor trash bin. Several homeless residents are suing over the rule.

The California Department of Transportation is required to post notices of cleanups before clearing out homeless encampments on state property. Homeless advocates say the agency doesn’t always comply with the rules and are suing the state over seized belongings. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/KHN)

In Oakland, up the hill from where Ciha camps, Caltrans posts advisories about scheduled cleanups, notifying people when they will come through. Caltrans policy requires the postings, but an ongoing class-action lawsuit against Caltrans claims that the policy isn’t always followed and that the sweeps are a violation of people’s constitutional right to private property.

Ciha has joined the suit. Another defendant said Caltrans took her walker, which she used because an infected wound made it difficult for her to get around. Others have lost ID cards and prescriptions, a setback for making appointments or receiving benefits, according to one of the lawyers on the case, Osha Neumann.

Caltrans workers say they hate doing the cleanups. “It’s like 100 times worse than it was just a few years ago,” said Steve Crouch, director of public employees for Local 39 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents Caltrans workers. “One of the biggest gripes they have is having to clean up the homeless encampments. It’s a nasty job.”

The sweeps also cause psychological damage. Ciha and his neighbors talk about how horrible it is when people driving by throw garbage at them. Herring said the trauma of living on the streets is so intense he hasn’t yet figured out how to write about it in his academic work. “[The city will] say we’re just asking people to move, but if you’re being asked that over and over and you have nowhere to go, and people are acting like you’re worthless or they’re scared of you, that affects you fast,” he said.

Up the hill from where Ciha camps, Caltrans posts advisories about scheduled cleanups. An ongoing lawsuit claims the agency systematically seizes and destroys people’s belongings, violating a constitutional right. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/KHN)

Ciha got tested for hep C after a friend went from healthy to sick in a matter of months. When his doctor prescribed the treatment, he was told he shouldn’t miss a dose. After his things were discarded, he wandered around Oakland for a week, he said, sleeping in random places. He stumbled across the area he now calls home, which he likes because it has just a few people and, for the most part, everyone keeps their area clean and drama-free.

Ciha went back to the doctor after he moved in and was able to get a refill of his prescription. But he’d gone a week without treatment and hasn’t gone back to see if his hep C is cured.

He has since grown accustomed to the Caltrans Shuffle. In the hours before last month’s sweep, he first lugged his cot to the nearby lot. Then his camping mattress and a plastic bin with pots, pans and utensils. Shredder’s food bowl. A cart holding a suitcase filled with bright-white teddy bears that remind him of his mom, a badminton racket, a comforter and a small landscape painting. Things he’ll use when he gets a place, he said.

He’d moved his belongings and was standing on the sidewalk by the time the Caltrans crew arrived, with two police escorts and five trucks. One of Ciha’s neighbors threw garbage into the back of one of the trucks, while workers checked the property. As the cleanup crew packed up, Ciha stood in the lot next door eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The sun was now above the horizon pushing out the morning cold. He would rest a few minutes, and then move back home.

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care FoundationKaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

NEXT STORY: For Rural Drug Users, Finding Clean Needles Might Mean Looking in the Mail

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.