Homeless in Berkeley must ‘rebuild’ after police remove property

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Julie Zhang/Staff

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In Berkeley, most homeless people can tell a story about the police taking their possessions.

Last week, members of Berkeley Police Department and the city’s parks department removed the property — including the bedding, blankets and clothes — of four homeless people at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

According to BPD spokesperson Officer Jennifer Coats, police officers and homeless outreach personnel were in the park offering housing and health services and found what appeared to be abandoned property. City personnel were then called in and took it to a storage facility in West Berkeley.

Boomer, who claimed some of his property before the trucks left, explained that he had left his property — including clothes, a drum machine and his passport — for 20 minutes in order to go to an appointment. He returned to see trucks being filled with his things.

“They were not putting it nice and neatly in the back of the truck,” Boomer said. “It looked like they were throwing it away.”

Mike Zint, coordinator of the homeless encampment outside the Downtown Berkeley Post Office, said Boomer’s situation is representative of hundreds of other cases of homeless people who have had their property taken.

Zint said he has lost his property to the police seven times in four years. He said the police came, usually at night, and often cited him for breaking Penal Code 647e, which states that lodging in any place, public or private, without the permission of the owner is an act of disorderly conduct. The police then took his gear as evidence of his violation.

According to Zint, Berkeley police had been targeting homeless people prior to last week’s City Council meeting, which involved votes on a biennial budget as well as four controversial pieces of legislation concerning Berkeley’s homeless population that many community members consider hostile toward the homeless.

“Trucks have been driving by full of stuff,” Zint said. “They’re cracking down on us by making life uncomfortable.”

Coats could not speak to any increase in police presence.

In many cases, property isn’t taken legally, according to Osha Neumann, a supervising attorney from the East Bay Community Law Center who frequently represents the homeless. Both he and Zint mentioned, based on past experiences, that the property — rather than being stored, as is required by law — was likely thrown away or destroyed.

According to Coats, all property that appears to be abandoned — meaning that it is unclaimed by any person in the surrounding area — is taken and stored. Police notify people in the nearby area about how the property can be retrieved if the owners return.

Two other homeless people, Reptile and Peanut, said they had their cart taken by police at People’s Park about three years ago, which had, among other things, Peanut’s heart medicine and food for their two dogs. A month later, they were told about the storage center and were able to retrieve the cart, but they were unable to get all of their original property back.

Boomer explained that after losing property, a homeless person has to rebuild from scratch.

“People get tired of constantly starting over,” he said. “Sometimes it leads people to make poor decisions. It has a dramatic effect mentally.”

Zint said that those left with nothing frequently become depressed and angry, sometimes turning to alcohol or drugs, and that by taking away the little property the homeless have, the city creates more problems than it solves.

“From our standpoint, we’re just doing our job,” Coats said. “We realize not everybody has a home, so we store (property) and try to get it back to them.”

Contact Ethan Walker at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ethannwalker.