By Andrew Cohen
Luke Diamond ’16 admits that his idealism has been tested by the challenges involved with homeless advocacy—but not his resolve.
Diamond has worked tirelessly with East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) attorney Osha Neumann on behalf of homeless people who, until recently, lived in Berkeley’s Gilman Street underpass beneath Interstate 80. After the City declared the encampment a public nuisance in June—and subject to closure without notice—EBCLC filed objections to the declaration and met with City officials, urging them to allow more time to find temporary housing for those living there.
After Berkeley refused to withdraw its nuisance declaration, Neumann and Diamond filed an appeal with the City Council. They appeared to have succeeded when the city manager announced Berkeley would terminate its nuisance action, citing EBCLC’s work with local agencies to secure housing for people.
But on July 18, just two days after the city’s initial deadline for people to leave the Gilman underpass, Berkeley police entered the area—in the early morning hours and without warning. With a bulldozer, concrete barriers, and dump trucks, they ejected people from the premises and seized many of their possessions.
“We relied on the city’s statement that it was terminating its public nuisance notice and that our work had been appreciated,” Diamond said. “We were taken by surprise, but, more to the point, the people living down there were taken by surprise by this sudden reversal.”
EBCLC has filed a public records request for information pertaining to the decision to clear out the underpass.
Hunting for the truth
“The city manager claimed that 1,000 pounds of trash were removed from the area and that it had become a dire health hazard, which is completely absurd,” Neumann said. “Right now we’re focused on trying to secure temporary placements for people. If any belongings were taken without notice, we’ll consider further action. Many city officials told us they had no idea this was going to happen, so we want to know how and why the decision was made.”
Neumann added that “what’s frustrating about this is that while the City complained about what was happening there in terms of food and trash, it didn’t provide any sanitation services—no trash receptacles or pickup. If your goal is truly to reduce harm, that would be desirable and easy to provide.”
Diamond called Berkeley’s actions “incredibly disingenuous.” He added, “The only conclusion we can draw is that while we were told our efforts in the area and our home placement efforts were persuasive, the city was actively planning this closure all along. Whatever you think of its homeless policy choices, it’s unseemly to mislead people like this.”
As for potential legal arguments, Neumann believes that any constitutional basis Berkeley may have had to seal off the area and remove people’s possessions vanished when it terminated the notice of public nuisance. “From a legal standpoint, it’s a violation of due process,” he said. “From a policy standpoint, it’s problematic when people don’t provide alternatives for the homeless. To just keep them moving, depriving them of a place to stay—that creates greater harm to society.”
Many of the people who were staying under the underpass moved there after being evicted from Albany, where they had been living on part of an overgrown landfill known as the Albany Bulb. Together with the Homeless Action Center and the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend, EBCLC had sued Albany to prevent it from evicting people without providing adequate resources to transition them into stable alternative housing. A settlement was reached: Albany made individual payments totaling $24,000 to some of the Bulb residents and hired a housing organization to help place them.
The problem? “Albany doesn’t have any low-income housing or homeless shelters or services,” Neumann noted. “As we predicted, many of those who were evicted simply migrated to Berkeley. It’s what we call the leaf-blower approach to homelessness, blowing them from one place to another without working toward a lasting solution.”