California’s highway department is destroying homeless people’s belongings on purpose, suit alleges

Being homeless doesn’t mean being without rights — or without property.

Patricia Moore used to have a tarp to sleep under. And a birth certificate. And a cell phone. CREDIT: Rosie Cima/ACLU of Northern California
Patricia Moore used to have a tarp to sleep under. And a birth certificate. And a cell phone. CREDIT: Rosie Cima/ACLU of Northern California

California’s massive transit bureau is routinely violating homeless people’s constitutional rights by seizing and destroying what little property they have, tossing everything from tents to family photos and crucial identification papers into trash crushers as state highway patrolmen stand by to prevent the hapless street dwellers from saving their belongings.

That’s the charge leveled in a new lawsuit from an array of civil rights groups in the Oakland area. Caltrans, as the state agency is known, has declined to comment on the new allegations, which are substantiated in the complaint by the stories of a half-dozen homeless individuals whose improvised dwellings at the verge of state highways have been targeted by department sweeps in the past two years.

James Leone, a trained mechanic living on the street in Oakland, had his tools destroyed by state workers in 2015. CREDIT: Rosie Cima/ACLU of Northern California
James Leone, a trained mechanic living on the street in Oakland, had his tools destroyed by state workers in 2015. CREDIT: Rosie Cima/ACLU of Northern California

James Leone, 56, landed on the street after losing his job as a mechanic during the Great Recession. “I’ve made money helping people with their cars and doing odd jobs,” Leone said in a statement. But then, in April, Caltrans workers showed up at the camp Leone and others had set up just west of the 980 freeway near downtown Oakland.

Everything Leone had went into a crusher machine, including his tool kit. Workers destroyed his phonebook, too, leaving him unable to contact a sister he now hasn’t spoken to in two years.

“Caltrans has been a major obstacle to getting my life together,” he said. “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.”

Christopher Craner hasn’t been on the street as long as Leone, but the same thing happened to him. In March 2015, at a camp just the other side of the freeway from Leone’s, Caltrans posted a notice of an upcoming sanitation sweep that did not specify a date or time. When crews eventually showed up, backed by California Highway Patrol deputies, they gave people only a few moments to hastily gather their property.

“However, once Mr. Craner stepped off of Caltrans’ property and onto the sidewalk, a CHP officer informed him that if he continued to remove his belongings from Caltrans property he would be arrested for trespassing,” the complaint says.

Craner looked on as the work crew crushed everything he owned — including a tool kit he used to find odd jobs as a mechanic, depriving him of his best shot at regaining his financial stability.

Christopher Craner was trying to save his belongings from a state crusher machine. A cop threatened to arrest him if he didn’t stop. CREDIT: Rosie Cima/ACLU of Northern California
Christopher Craner was trying to save his belongings from a state crusher machine. A cop threatened to arrest him if he didn’t stop. CREDIT: Rosie Cima/ACLU of Northern California

Even when the sweep notices do list a specific time and day, the plaintiffs say, homeless people can’t trust Caltrans to stick to its word. Patricia Moore lost a tent, cot, sleeping bag, coat, shoes, and all her clothes when work crews showed up at 8:00 one morning last March, instead of 9:00 as promised, and began throwing people’s property into a crusher.

Such ruthless destruction of property does nothing to cure booming homelessness in the Bay Area and across the state. But it deprives the people allegedly victimized of their basic rights of due process, the lawsuit compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and the private firm WilmerHale argues.

To make matters worse, Caltrans knows full well that what it’s doing is both harmful and wrong. It has twice in the past settled similar lawsuits by agreeing to cease the practice, and even erected an internal policy six years ago that instructs employees to handle sanitation sweeps of homeless encampments of department property with humanity — and with respect for homeless Americans’ constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

“It’s more expedient, easier, and probably cheaper to just throw everybody’s stuff away than it is to do what the Constitution requires,” said WilmerHale attorney Keith Slenkovich. “And then California Highway patrol acting as an agent of Caltrans in these sweeps adds an element of coerciveness to the whole thing. Guns and tasers make the situation panicky for everyone involved.”

Slenkovich and his colleagues are looking to force Caltrans to start posting specific advance notices of sweeps. If people still haven’t moved their things out of the way of work crews, the agency is obligated to store and preserve any property of value and facilitate their retrieval when someone contacts them — rather than destroying tents and blankets and photo albums and cell phones on the spot.

For people in survival mode on the street, it can be almost impossible to recover from losing everything.

That’s what the department’s own policy ostensibly requires, but workers are allegedly ignoring that policy on the ground, and then ignoring phone calls or denying administrative claims when homeless people do attempt to recover lost belongings.

Those violations are eye-popping even in the context of years of repressive treatment of the homeless, according to EBCLC attorney Osha Neumann, who has worked with and befriended homeless people in the area going back to the 1970s.

“The form that it’s taken now, taking what they have but leaving them where they are, that’s kind of new. It represents an admission of giving up on actually trying to make a difference,” Neumann said. “Caltrans will come in and make their lives difficult, but it will have no genuine effect other than to increase misery.”

For people in survival mode on the street, it can be almost impossible to recover from losing everything they have to a Caltrans compactor. Even those who persevere and start rebuilding the basic supplies they’ve lost soon get knocked back to square one again.

Katherine Perkins has been homeless for most of the last four years. Two weeks before Thanksgiving this year, she got back to her campsite to find her husband distraught. Caltrans had just destroyed their bedding, a large tarp and canopy set-up, and a pair of sturdy boots. Katherine’s birth certificate, bicycle, and family photos weren’t there to destroy that day, because they’d already been disappeared by previous department raids.

These plaintiff stories don’t even capture the worst of what Neumann has seen in his years of contact with Oakland’s street-dwellers. “One guy told me Caltrans took his tent, and in his tent was his cat, and they threw the tent with the cat into the compactor and they crushed his cat in front of his eyes,” Neumann said. “How do you explain that? You tell people something like that, and people respond to the cat.”

Such heartwrenching stories aren’t novel. Similar coalitions of public-interest lawyers sued over the exact same property destruction system in the 1990s and again in the 2000s, with Caltrans agreeing in each case to reform their practices for a limited period of time.

The department enacted a comprehensive internal policy to uphold homeless people’s property and process rights in 2010, and stories like this faded for years. But sometime in the past year and a half, all three lawyers said, they started hearing the same old stories from homeless people and local reporters.

Why would a government agency get right by the law for a few years and then relapse into such flagrant violations? Department policy should theoretically be able to weather the changes wrought by an influx of tech industry wealth that’s gentrifying and reshaping communities across the bay area, after all. But relapses like this are a common cycle, the ACLU’s Risher said — one rooted in prejudice about homeless citizens.

“It’s mostly the result of personnel changes, of memories fading, and of a continuing lack of respect for the rights of homeless people,” he said. “Unless people are reminded, they tend to forget that homeless people have the exact same constitutional rights as the rest of us, and their property is protected just as much as yours or mine.”

Risher’s clients don’t quite share that high-minded view of what’s going on here. “Some of our clients think there is a level of punishment that at least some Caltrans workers are trying to inflict, to make their lives more difficult out of a desire to chase them off,” he said. “I don’t want to smear Caltrans employees in general, but there’s a perception among our clients that at least some staff are doing this for less-than-pure reasons.”

A win in this new case would refresh Caltrans’ memory and break its renewed pattern of abuses. But each of the lawyers acknowledged that a gavel can’t change what’s in people’s hearts.

“There’s got to be a broader understanding in society for who these folks are, the true circumstances that have landed them where they are, and to not villify them,” WilmerHale’s Slenkovich said. “But I think it’s a small step in helping to sensitize folks to this problem. Very few people choose to be homeless.”

It’s hard work —and not necessarily possible in a courtoom — to convince both the agency and the public it serves to proactively invest in the idea that people living on the streets are something other than a nuisance is harder work.

“We’re fighting for values that simply aren’t dominant or rewarded in this society,” EBCLC’s Neumann said.

“The lawsuit is dipping a spoon in the ocean. But it’s what we can do.”