City of Berkeley officials organize Interstate 80 underpass cleanup

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03/04/2020: This article has been updated with information from the Office of Councilmember Kate Harrison.

On Feb. 29, the city of Berkeley Mayor’s Office organized a cleanup of the area under the underpass on the east side of Interstate 80 and University Avenue for the homeless community residing there.

The cleanup effort had more than 20 people assisting, including Mayor Jesse Arreguín, City Council members Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson, city staff and homeless service organizations. Caltrans has not picked up trash in the area since September 2019, according to Arreguín.

He added that Caltrans is supposed to pick up trash every two weeks and the lack of trash pickup has created a “very dangerous situation” for the people at the site.

“You don’t have to evict homeless people to clean up and I think that is also what we are trying to show today,” Arreguín said. “Somebody needs to do something, somebody needs to step up and provide leadership and that’s what we are trying to do today. We’re trying to make sure that while these people are here they are at least living in a clean and safe environment.”

There is currently a class action lawsuit against Caltrans to prevent it from moving people and to get compensation for those who lost their belongings, according to Osha Neumann, an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center. Neumann added that the insistence of the homeless community to stay in that area sparked the “Where do we go?” campaign in Berkeley.

The state is working on “elevating” the issue of homelessness and providing cities with resources to tackle the issue, Robinson said. There is an upcoming City Council item that will lease property from the state at the University Avenue interchange by Sea Breeze Market that will be used to provide services and the cleanup the residents in the area have needed, according to Robinson.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is addressing statewide homelessness by calling on local governments to work with the state. Newsom has issued executive orders and unveiled a plan that featured offering cities $1 leases on state-owned property and $650 million in State Emergency Homeless Aid to build sites on these properties to provide shelters and other homelessness services, according to his press release. Newsom also proposed a state budget that included more than $1 billion to address homelessness.

“If other people won’t do it, we’ll step in, that’s what the mayor’s office proved today, but that’s not a sustainable strategy,” Robinson said. “We need more effective regional cooperation between the city of Berkeley and our neighboring jurisdictions, and most importantly, between us and the state and with Caltrans to make sure that the circumstances of these encampments never again grow as dire as they are now.”

Hahn added that cities need aid from the state on issues related to homelessness and the state could help through long-term subsidies to keep people rehoused as the city funds are not enough to keep people housed.

Sarah Teague, a resident of the unhoused population at the site, said she was “blown away” by the cleanup and was grateful that many people came out to help.

Andrea Henson, the lead organizer for “Where do we go?” added that countless organizing and the change in leadership has altered the dialogue and led to a more humane understanding of the circumstances of the unhoused population in contrast to trying to evict the population.

“I think what is happening here is really special, it’s a special point in time where there is going to be a change,” Henson said. “We have to keep pushing and writing it so that we can do things differently and I want the governor to see that we are doing something different in Berkeley.”

Contact Nina Narahari at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ninanarahari_dc.