BERKELEY (KPIX 5) — In a first of its kind settlement, Caltrans has agreed to pay $1.3 million to homeless residents who lost their belongings during encampment cleanup operations.

The landmark settlement calls for the department to compensate homeless people for their property and sets new rules for camp cleanups across the state.

Many Bay Area drivers see what looks like trash strewn along the side of Bay Area freeways: broken tents, soiled clothing, and abandoned shopping carts.

But Patricia Moore says that’s homeless peoples’ property. “The things that the wasteful society throws out are the things we utilize,” said Moore.

She finally has a roof over her head, as does her trusty sidekick, Ebony. But for years Patricia, also known as “Mama Bear,” lived under a freeway overpass in Berkeley.

When KPIX first spoke with her last year she was packing up, preparing for a Caltrans sweep, something she has been through dozens of times.

“So usually you lose the tent, the bedding. Also you can lose receipts and paperwork, from Medicare, from doctors’ appointments. There was never a single one of the sweeps that I got everything moved in time,” said Moore.

Moore fought back. She is one of three plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Caltrans that reached the landmark settlement.

“People who were homeless, whose belongings had been treated like trash, they had been treated like trash, finally get the recognition of the value of who they are and of what they lost and compensation for it,” said Osha Neumann.

Neumann is Moore’s attorney, one of several that worked on the lawsuit. “I spent a lot of time out in these encampments under freeways, by the edges of freeways, crawling through fences, going into people’s tents, hearing these stories. And it was painful. I mean, it was really painful because it was so repetitive and so often the same thing,” said Neumann.

Under the settlement, Caltrans will pay $1.3 million for belongings removed from state highway property in Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland between December 2014 and October 2019. Confiscated property will be stored for 60 days.

A phone line will be set up for people to retrieve their belongings and 48 hour notices will be posted before any sweep, giving a specific date instead of a five day window.

“I mean, people are devastated,” said Leslie Dreyer with the Stolen Belonging Project, a group of activists who have banded together to stop the sweeps in the city and protect the rights of homeless people to their property.

She hopes the Caltrans settlement will send a message to San Francisco City Hall. “Sweeps are already a huge problem, but just really thinking through all of the belongings lost was what prompted us to start the project,” said Dreyer.

She says public works crews cannot take peoples’ belongings if they are attended, but often do it anyway.

“Their tents, their tarps, their sleeping bags, things that protect them from the elements, their medications that they need every day. But we’re also focusing on the very cherished personal belongings that can’t be replaced. Family, ashes, family heirlooms, last photos of loved ones, letters from loved ones. Really everything that a person keeps to remind them who they are,” said Dreyer.

Back in Berkeley, Moore and her attorney Newmann were celebrating a hard won victory not just for themselves, but for all the homeless people. “I’m glad, I mean it’s great, it’s so finally somebody is hearing us,” said Moore.

She has advice for all her homeless family still out there: Have your stuff packed and ready before a sweep, and take a stand.

“Insist, you know, that’s what it comes down to. Just insist. Don’t let them push you around, because you do have rights,” said Moore.

Caltrans did not respond to KPIX’s request for comment on this story. In an email, a spokesperson for San Francisco’s Public Works Department told us that DPW crews follow all bag and tag guidelines, outlined on the department’s website. Complaints are investigated and may include employee discipline.

More information from SF DPW:
Owners of collected personal property may retrieve their items at the Public Works operations yard at 2323 Cesar Chavez street. If collected within the previous 72 hours, owners can retrieve items anytime, day or night. If the items were collected more than 72 hours ago, the owner may retrieve items Monday through Friday, 9 am to 3pm. Outside of that time frame, the wait may take longer because a field supervisor may have to be called in.

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