Homeless encampments along railroad prompt concerns from residents

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In the wake of the dispersal of people living in a large homeless community in Albany, various homeless encampments along the railroad tracks between Cedar and Gilman streets have prompted concerns among local residents.

Some of the homeless individuals inhabiting the edges of the railroad tracks and surrounding streets were originally from the Albany Bulb, a homeless community that was largely emptied by a settlement between its inhabitants and the city of Albany in April. Last week, the city of Berkeley cleared an encampment under the Gilman Street overpass, where other Bulb residents had relocated, dispersing more people.

According to Allen Hardy, owner of an auto service company located near the tracks called H&B Inc., the presence of people living along the railroad has been a long-term problem.

Cameron Shaw, a former Bulb resident who is now living in a small encampment off of Second Street, said people had been occupying the area for years before he arrived. Aware of the public complaints about garbage left by these camps, Shaw and his neighbors try to mitigate their impact on the area.

“We have good stewardship and clean anything in excess that might disturb the fellow man,” Shaw said.

The city of Berkeley cleared the Gilman camp because it gave rise to excessive waste and increased calls to the police, among other health and safety problems, according to a city memo. But the larger concern regarding the railroad track camps is the issue of the inhabitants being so close to passing trains.

Some surrounding business owners claim to have seen homeless people running across the tracks and are concerned that they may be hit. In October, Mark Schwartz, a local homeless man and activist, was struck and injured by a Union Pacific train at Gilman Street. In March of this year, Matthew Finch of El Cerrito was struck and killed by a train near Northwest Berkeley.

Aaron Hunt, spokesperson for Union Pacific — which owns the land that the tracks run on — said the company takes extensive precautions to warn pedestrians about the danger of being near the railroad, regularly patrol the tracks and cite any trespassers.

“Freight trains are deceptively quick and passenger trains travel at more than 70 mph,” Hunt said in an email. “We work constantly to make people aware that railroad property is never a safe place to be.”

Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, has worked with residents from the Bulb and the Gilman overpass to help them find housing. He said he hopes the city will take more action to help, rather than relocate, the homeless individuals.

Berkeley plans to provide financial subsidies to fund housing and has partnered with community agencies to help displaced homeless people, according to city memos.

“We have a shredded safety net now — one that has holes you could drive a truck through,” Neumann said. “The object for concern in Gilman and Second are the people who fell through those holes.”

Contact Sarah Rockwood at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @srockwood44.