Homeless sue Caltrans over encampment sweeps

A coalition of East Bay homeless people and advocates sued Caltrans in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland Tuesday, accusing the agency of illegally seizing and destroying property during sweeps of homeless encampments.

The plaintiffs include four people who have camped on Caltrans property in Oakland and one who lived under the Interstate 580 overpass on Gilman Street in Berkeley.

They claim that Caltrans and its staff sometimes clear out encampments with inadequate notice, misleading notice or no notice and then sometimes destroy homeless people’s property in trash compactors without giving them a chance to move it.

The destroyed property includes items needed for survival, such as clothing, medicine, tents, bedding, and personal papers, according to the lawsuit:

“Homeless individuals are able to possess very little in the way of personal property. … But because of their plight, the few possessions they do have are critical to these individuals’ health, wellbeing and any hope they have of finding the stable shelter that so many people take for granted.”

Four of the homeless plaintiffs say their administrative claims to Caltrans for their property were denied and the fifth says he was never able to reach anyone at a telephone number posted by Caltrans.

The other plaintiffs in the case are the Homeless Action Center, the Western Regional Advocacy Project and two Alameda County volunteers who work with homeless people.

The lawsuit is based on claims of violations of the federal and state constitutional rights to due process of law and freedom from unreasonable seizures, as well as violations of state laws.

The lawsuit seeks to be certified as a class action on behalf of all homeless people in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville who have had property seized and destroyed by Caltrans in the past two years.

The document says the plaintiffs’ lawyers do not know how many people would be in the class, but they do know that at least 55 people have had property claims denied or not acted upon by Caltrans in the past year.

The suit asks for financial compensation for class members who have lost property and for a statewide injunction halting the alleged practices by the agency.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers are from several legal groups, including the ACLU, which released a statement from plaintiff James Leone, 56, of Oakland.

Leone is a mechanic who became homeless in 2010 after being laid off from his job.

The lawsuit says his belongings were seized and destroyed twice, most recently in April, when Caltrans workers allegedly threw away his tent, a down sleeping bag, all his clothing, his mechanic’s tool set and a family photo album.

Leone said in the statement:

“I don’t want to be homeless on the streets of Oakland forever. … Caltrans has been a major obstacle to getting my life together. Twice in six years, I’ve been left with only the clothes on my back. Twice I’ve lost everything I own in the world.”

Caltrans spokesman Robert Haus said he could not comment specifically on the lawsuit and its allegations.

But in general terms, he said:

“Our policy is to post a notice three days ahead of time.”

A picture of the notice with a time stamp is taken, he said. If Caltrans workers see items that appear to be worth $50 or more, the agency holds on to the items for 30 days. The notice has a phone number telling people where to call about their items, Haus said.