Fred is one of many unhoused people in the East Bay who say they lost important belongings when state work crews cleaned or closed their encampments. Now some of them will get money back. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Fred has lived under the maze of freeway bridges at Harrison Street and West MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland for three or four years. 

It’s a good place to live, he said: The noise from the traffic is a bit much, but the land he and 20 others sleep on, which is owned by the California Department of Transportation, is shaded by large trees, and is just a few steps away from a gas station that sells hot coffee. Neighbors who live in homes nearby drop off donations like clothes and food. Large giraffes, painted on beams, watch over the campers.

There have been stressful moments too, over the years. Caltrans work crews have cleaned the area multiple times and Fred said they’ve sometimes taken things that were of value to him, like ID cards and even a computer. He never got them back. Fred and other residents would try to move all their belongings onto the city sidewalk and off Caltrans’ property when the workers came, so their items wouldn’t be confiscated, but that wasn’t always possible in the time frame, “and I get tired of moving it,” Fred said. 

So Fred, who didn’t share his last name, was pleasantly surprised when he read news in February about a lawsuit settlement requiring Caltrans to pay $200-$5,500 to homeless people who had their belongings destroyed by the agency in Oakland, Berkeley, or Emeryville between December 2014 and October 2019. That class-action lawsuit was first filed in 2016. Starting this week, people who believe they’re eligible for reimbursement will be able to begin filing claims. 

But, Fred said, “people don’t know the steps to go about” collecting those payouts, and many unhoused people aren’t aware of the case at all. He got in touch with The Oaklandside by filling out our online form, to ask whether we could share information about the claims process.

Here’s what you need to know about the lawsuit and how to get a check. 

Who should file a claim: If you lived on Caltrans property—often areas beneath or next to a freeway—in Oakland, Berkeley, or Emeryville between December 2014 and October 2019, and believe your personal belongings were unfairly taken and destroyed by Caltrans, you can file a claim for reimbursement. 

If your property can be replaced for $200 or less, and you didn’t experience any emotional or physical distress when it was taken, you might be owed $200. If it can be replaced for $1,000 or less, you might be owed $1,000. If the value was higher than $1,000 and you experienced significant distress—if the destroyed property had strong sentimental value, for example—you might be owed $5,500.

How to file a claim: You can call 510-467-0105 for free assistance and to receive a copy of the claim form. The form includes detailed questions about what you experienced with Caltrans and what property was destroyed.

“It’s a complicated form,” acknowledged Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. She said the process doesn’t need to stress anyone out: “Anyone who’s filling out the form should contact us for help,” she said.

Once you complete the form, it must mailed to or dropped off in person at one of the following locations before Oct. 16, 2020. A lawyer can do this for you. 

Homeless Action Center, 2601 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, CA, 94612
Homeless Action Center, 3126 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA, 94705

Some lawsuit materials say you can bring the completed forms to the East Bay Community Law Center as well, but its offices are closed during the pandemic so the center isn’t accepting forms currently.

What to expect: Caltrans won’t review the claims until they’re all sent in, after the October deadline. So people likely won’t get their checks until November or so, Della-Piana said.

What else is Caltrans required to do?: In addition to paying up to $1.3 million directly to homeless people, the agency also has to pay $700,000 to the Homeless Action Center and $3.5 million in attorneys’ fees. The settlement agreement requires Caltrans to change how it does encampment cleanups and closures across the state. It must give a “notice to vacate” to an encampment area 48 hours in advance, and post a phone number people can call to retrieve any items taken by the agency, which must store the objects for 60 days.

Under the agreement, Caltrans will also launch a pilot program in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, posting monthly schedules of upcoming cleanups online. Before any cleanup, workers will drop off trash bags for residents who haven’t been able to pack up their things. The agency is required to store anything left behind that is worth more than $50 or is personal, like eyeglasses, tents, or photos. Crews are allowed to destroy anything that’s moldy, infested with bugs or rodents, or otherwise toxic. 

The Oaklandside asked Caltrans last week whether these changes have been implemented and for the agency’s comment on the lawsuit settlement. We will update the story if Caltrans responds.

Jim Leone was one of the original plaintiffs in the Caltrans lawsuit. He died this summer. Credit: Courtesy Elisa Della-Piana

Since the settlement was reached, there’s only been one Caltrans clean-up in Oakland, according to the agency and lawyers tracking this case. That weeklong process took place at one of the city’s largest encampments, West Oakland’s Wood Street camp. Caltrans said the Oakland Fire Department asked the agency to clear a fire access path at the crowded site. In that case, the agency gave campers notice several days ahead of time and posted a phone number to call for any taken belongings. The notice also said Caltrans would store the items for 90 days, longer than required by the settlement. All but one person was able to move back to their previous spots in the camp, advocates told The Oaklandside. 

Della-Piana said she’s seen positive changes in Caltrans’ behavior since the settlement. Previously, she said, the agency would sometimes conduct encampment sweeps with just a few minutes’ notice, “telling people they could only keep what they could carry.” Her clients lost tents and medication, she said. 

One of the plaintiffs in the class action case, Jim Leone, had an address book with all his personal contacts destroyed by Caltrans. Tragically, Della-Piana said, Leone died on the street in Oakland just a couple weeks ago. 

“He was just so wonderful,” she said. “He spent so much time standing up for other people.”

Leone got to hear the outcome of his lawsuit, but Della-Piana said she’s sad that he didn’t live long enough to pick up his check. 

Clarification: This story was updated after publication to specify the most effective method for filing a claim form.

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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.