Homeless Action Center in West Oakland sees many visitors picking up their Caltrans settlement check.
Hundreds of people came to the Homeless Action Center this week to claim their portions of a lawsuit settlement with Caltrans. Credit: Amir Aziz

It’s a familiar experience for many unhoused people in the East Bay: leave your camp for a few hours and return to find your tent, clothes, bikes, and family heirlooms taken or trashed.

But for more than 1,000 homeless people who’ve lived on land owned by the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, this week presented a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get payback for belongings destroyed by the state agency.

Scroll to meet some of the people who received settlement funds

On Wednesday afternoon, a steady stream of people lined up outside the Homeless Action Center, at 2601 San Pablo Ave., to claim debit cards loaded with financial compensation for the things they lost. A class-action lawsuit settlement in early 2020 required Caltrans to reimburse homeless people whose things they unfairly took between 2014 and 2019.

“This is the first class-action of this size for unhoused people in this country,” and being awarded compensation is “very, very rare,” said Tori Larson, attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which represents the unhoused people in the case. 

“I hope that ultimately everyone has the same shared goal, which is to end homelessness and get everyone inside, but in the meantime, we have to protect the rights of safety of people who are on the streets, and balance that with people who are housed,” Larson said. 

Last year, 1,700 people filed claims for reimbursement, and 1,174 were approved, Larson said. Distribution of the awards began Monday and will continue for the next six months, at which point the money may return to Caltrans. Already about half have been claimed, and lawyers have attempted to notify everyone who is eligible.

Caltrans did not respond to questions about the claims and the agency’s approach to encampments by publication time.

For some people who collected debit cards Wednesday, the envelope they were handed was compensation for items taken six or seven years ago. Others moved out of the Bay Area, or died, before they could file a claim or retrieve their payment. 

Because so many people filed claims, the maximum amount awarded to individuals—initially advertised as $200 to $5,500—was substantially lowered, by 45%, averaging around $500 each. “The settlement fund is finite,” Larson explained.

Emotions and tensions were high Monday, the first day the money was distributed, she said. Hundreds of people clamored to get their funds, causing chaos and prompting organizers to hire security and introduce a new system to keep things orderly, starting Tuesday. People who picked up their debit cards Wednesday generally moved through the process without issue in about 15 minutes. 

The Oaklandside and Berkeleyside visited the site together that afternoon, talking to residents about why they filed claims and how they feel about the compensation. Read on to hear their stories and learn how to pick up your own debit card if your claim was approved. 

was your claim approved? here’s how to get your payment

Phone hotline: 510-467-0105

How to get your award:

  • In person: Pick up your debit card at the Homeless Action Center, 2601 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, Monday to Thursday, 1-5 p.m. (for the foreseeable future). 
  • By mail: All debit cards will be kept at the HAC office by default, but anyone with a successful claim can ask that it be mailed to a different address. Call the hotline to make a request.

When you get there:

  • Identification: You will need a valid, government-issued ID.
    • If you do not have ID, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights will make accommodations within limits. Call 510-467-0105 to ask about your specific case.
    • If you have an ID with no picture, like a birth certificate, you will be asked for another piece of verification like an EBT card or a piece of mail.
  • W-9 form: A W-9 form is required to collect the debit card, and all claimants will be provided a copy of their W-9.

How will this impact my government benefits?

  • The payment could affect people who receive general assistance or social security income, if the settlement amount tips your monthly income over $2,000. 
  • Lawyers recommend spending the money within a month (and will provide information when you pick up your debit card).

William Davidson

William Davidson visits HAC in West Oakland to pick up the settlement disbursement
William Davidson has been unhoused for two decades, getting his belongings taken countless times. Credit: Amir Aziz

William Davidson, 65, has been homeless in Oakland and the Bay Area for over 20 years, and currently lives outside near Laney College. His possessions have been swept numerous times, dating back to 2006, he said. 

“I could’ve filed 30 suits against them and they’d still owe me,” Davidson said of the Caltrans settlement he collected Wednesday.

His best friend, Jim Leone, was one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He died in summer 2020, and Davidson said many other people weren’t able to wait out the lengthy legal process after their possessions were taken from them. He credited the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for bringing the case to a rapid conclusion, where many legal battles can be bogged down in courts for much longer.

“Our great-grandkids wouldn’t have seen that money if (Caltrans) didn’t want us to,” Davidson said. “The lawyers did a great job.”

Phyl Lewis

Phyl Lewis visits HAC in West Oakland to pick up the settlement disbursement
Phyl Lewis has an apartment now, but he returned to his former encampment to help his old neighbors file their claims. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last year, Phyl Lewis got so busy helping unhoused people fill out Caltrans claim forms that he nearly forgot to submit his own by the deadline. Lewis, who now lives in an apartment in Berkeley, assisted lawyers Osha Neumann and Andrea Henson as they helped claimants over by his old stomping grounds: the University Avenue underpass in Berkeley. 

Lewis was living under the maze of freeways there when Caltrans took his bike, tent, clothes, letters, and photographs of his grandmother, he said. Having been homeless for some time, he was dismayed but unsurprised by the development. “After they take your stuff so many times, it’s just another day,” he said. 

But Lewis is thrilled that many of the people who lived there with him, and hundreds of others, are getting some compensation for their losses. “I’m grateful for this and glad everybody got something out of it. Something is better than nothing,” he said. 

As for his own award, Lewis is “pretty excited.” Now housed and in a more stable position, he’s no longer lacking basic necessities. So he’s buying himself a PlayStation 5 with the funds.

Shalah Neller

Shalah Neller, visits HAC in West Oakland to pick up the settlement disbursement
Shalah Neller said the payments would be more practical if they were doled out in cash. Credit: Amir Aziz

Shalah Neller, 40, who is currently homeless in Oakland, received her debit card on Tuesday but felt the disbursement method was limiting. Most of her transactions are done in cash because she purchases items from other homeless people, and the debit card cannot be cashed out at an ATM because it doesn’t have a PIN code. [Update, Aug. 4: The debit cards can now be used for money orders or cashier’s checks at some banks and Western Union, lawyers said. They still cannot be used at ATMs.]

As a woman living by herself, she often gets her wallet and items stolen, and said the debit card will be easier to lose than cash—which she typically keeps on her person. 

Neller was living with her boyfriend on the streets in Oakland several years ago when their items were swept by Caltrans. “We lost thousands of dollars worth of stuff,” she said, including her boyfriend’s mechanic work clothes, tools and shoes, as well as all of her belongings. 

“At the moment, at least, it’s a pretty big letdown because I can’t use it and I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” Neller said, resting against the side of the HAC building on Wednesday. 

She hopes the card doesn’t get turned down on public transit, at certain stores with restrictions, and other businesses.

Kory Christopher

Homeless Action Center in West Oakland sees many visitors picking up their Caltrans settlement check.
Kory Christopher still gets upset thinking about the educational materials he lost in a Caltrans sweep. Credit: Amir Aziz

Kory Christopher has been homeless on and off for the past several years, and he said those initial months living outside after being housed are filled with lots of stuff. “You have everything you had when you lived in a home,” he said, standing in front of the bright blue walls of the HAC. He held the envelope containing his debit card in one hand and a cold drink in the other, while his bike leaned against his legs.

He had just made that transition from housing to houselessness on Brush Street along the freeway in downtown Oakland when Caltrans crews came and took his belongings, said Christopher. “I had my CD collection, my record collection, my clothes. The worst thing was a database from school.” 

At the time, Christopher had been taking horticulture classes at Merritt College, where he painstakingly photographed each plant he learned about and slipped the pictures into the laminated pages of a large binder, along with hand-written information sheets. It was a “really great study tool” he hoped to eventually parlay into a landscaping career. “It still makes me upset,” he said. 

He looked down at the envelope in his hand. “This lifts a little weight, but I don’t see much change happening,” said Christopher, who’s now unhoused in West Oakland. “They’re still clearing people’s homes out—though I guess a little more considerately.”

Nino Parker

Nino Parker visits HAC in West Oakland to pick up the settlement disbursement
Nino Parker, a homeless Berkeley resident and advocate for other unhoused people, retrieved debit cards for friends who couldn’t get theirs. Credit: Amir Aziz

Jason “Nino” Parker lives at Berkeley’s Frontage-University encampment and is originally from the Bay Area. He picked up his debit card on Wednesday, and was also at the site advocating for homeless residents at his encampment with disabilities who couldn’t pick up their debit cards on their own.

There is a proxy process available, which requires that the person who is unable to pick up their debit card write a handwritten letter to the lawyers confirming that someone else will do it for them. That proxy has to have a valid, government-issued ID, Larson said. 

Parker has been homeless in the East Bay for at least three years, and endured multiple sweeps of his belongings. He said the settlement amount, after being greatly reduced from the initial figure, won’t make a significant difference in his day-to-day life or open up new housing options for him. 

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 lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.