Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol cleared homeless camps around the Highway 94 off-ramps and I-5 overpasses next to downtown on Friday morning, September 4.
Around morning rush hour, homeless people gathered downhill from the clearing project, at 17th and F streets and 17th and G streets, many with their possessions in tow.
"We'll go back tonight and start over," said a tall blond man who trotted across stopped traffic to join the group. "My stuff is safe — I moved it to the sidewalk."
Caltrans and the CHP confirmed the cleanup operation.
"It's not a cold and callous operation. We put up notices three days in advance that we're coming on a certain time and date so people can get their belongings out of there," said Edward Cartagena, a Caltrans District 11 spokesman. "We have a crew out almost every day cleaning out downtown area camps around the I-5, the 163, and the 94."
Caltrans sends between two and four garbage trucks and a crew — with a CHP escort — to pick up trash and debris left at the camps, which are mostly empty of people by the time they arrive, Cartagena said.
"It's a triple-edged sword for us," he explained. "We get complaints about the trash and the sanitary concerns from people who live next to the freeway; there are sanitation and hygiene concerns with the camps, and motorists complain, but we also know that clearing out the camps doesn't solve the problem [of homelessness.]”
Many of those who were displaced headed to the Neil Good Day Center at 17th and K streets to wait in the shade or watch television — something several said was a normal part of the day anyway.
Lisa K. waited outside the center after ordering a sandwich from a food truck. She said the cleanups are routine and not unexpected or particularly distressing.
Others, like John McHough, say that Caltrans takes their belongings and it's hard to get them back.
"If you're not there, they throw your medications, personal papers, and your sleeping bag in a garbage truck without any consideration on how you're going to live without it," McHough said. "They say you can get it back but you have to have proof it's yours — how do you prove it's your stuff when they took it?"
Cartagena says that Caltrans workers do set aside things that look like they may be of value to people — backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, and such.
"If anything is left behind that appears to be of value, we keep it for 30 days and people can claim it," he said. "We've returned numerous items to people. But we don't go through their things — that's an invasion of privacy. So, it's hard when someone calls us and says all my documentation was in a black trash bag — we're not going to rifle through trash bags."