Gilman Street underpass: For many, the poster child of Berkeley homeless camps

This man, who didn't want to give his name, lives by the Gilman underpass. He makes $30 to $40 a day scavenging. He finds lots of food (people throw away a lot from Trader Joe's) as well as things like scooters, skateboards, etc. When Caltrans and Berkeley recently cleaned out the camp, he just went across the street and returned when they left, he said. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Bood, 37, lives by the Gilman underpass. He makes $30 to $40 a day scavenging. He finds lots of food (people throw away a lot from Trader Joe’s) as well as things like scooters, skateboards, etc. When Caltrans and Berkeley recently cleaned out the camp, he just went across the street and returned when they left, he said. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Bood’s home is a blue tarp on Eastshore Freeway, the frontage road right by the Gilman Street underpass. At 37, he’s been living on the streets for a few years, driven there by a break-up with a long-time girlfriend.

Bood scavenges for a living. He makes the rounds in Berkeley and El Cerrito looking for tossed food (a lot of people throw away food from Trader Joe’s, he said) and discarded clothing he can sell to Buffalo Exchange and other consignment stores. The area around his tarp reflects the way he makes a living: There are folding chairs, rugs, candles and flashlights, among other items.

See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project.

Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, Berkeley police and city workers came to the area to clean it out about two weeks ago, June 16. They carted away garbage trucks full of debris. They also found more than 250 used hypodermic needles and bottles of urine, as well as feces and dead rodents.


Did the clean up have any effect on Bood and the rest of the people hanging out in the area?

No.

“We gathered our stuff up, we went across the street and waited for them to leave,” said Bood, who did not give his last name. “Then we set back up.”

Bood characterized the clean-up as “a game, a dance, a wink, wink.” Almost every two weeks Caltrans workers come by and sweep through the Gilman underpass area. Almost as soon as they are gone, the squatters return.

In recent years, the underpass encampment has become one of the most visible signs of homelessness in Berkeley. People’s Park used to be considered the epicenter of homelessness since so many people camped out there overnight. But ever since the city of Albany evicted the homeless people living at The Bulb and paid them $3,000 to leave, Gilman has taken center stage.


“The vast majority of the folks from Gilman tell me they came from the Albany Bulb,” said Berkeley Police Officer Chris Scott. He is the Area 4 coordinator, the community liaison for a large area mostly west of San Pablo Avenue.

Homeless camp at the Gilman underpass, June 23, 2016. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The homeless camp at the Gilman underpass one week after the big city clean-up June 23. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A shopping cart full of possession at the Gillman Street underpass. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A shopping cart full of possession at the Gillman Street underpass. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The sight of people with tents, rugs and chairs amassed on the sidewalk is deeply disturbing to many Berkeley residents. A number of those living there are very dirty. Staph infections are common. So is drug use. In recent weeks, police have made arrests for an assault with a deadly weapon, brandishing a weapon, and sexual assault, said Scott.

“Gilman is a homeless encampment with tents, carts and garbage that looks like a 3rd world country,” one reader wrote to Berkeleyside. “It’s a nightmare that nobody wants to touch.”

Berkeley offers a myriad of services to the 800 to 1,200 or so people who live in the city but don’t have a permanent home. But those around the Gilman underpass are the most service-resistant.

“We hear from many folks that they are aware of the services,” said Scott. “They don’t want them.”


Bood is an example of someone who doesn’t want to enter Berkeley’s shelter system. He came from Philadelphia a year ago. He was heading to Oregon with a friend, but when that friend left unexpectedly, Bood decided to stay in the Bay Area.

“I settled in Berkeley because it’s the easiest place to get by,” he said.

Bood earns $30 to $40 a day collecting and selling stuff and uses that money to eat and get high. He has set up his tarp on the side of the frontage road and on a recent sunny Thursday people were sitting in chairs socializing. The community around the underpass is like any community, said Bood. It’s not a monolithic group. One-third of the people are great, one-third are “assholes, and one-third are “insane,” he said.

Bood characterizes himself as “a decent person in odd circumstances.”

Even though theft is rampant and some of the people he interacts with are clearly mentally ill, Bood said he has no intention of trading in his lifestyle, which affords him independence, for the shelter system.


“Shelters are like jails,” he said, referring to the strict wake-up and sleep times.

Homeless camp at the Gilman underpass, June 23, 2016, Vicky. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Vicky who is pregnant, said last week she would like the city to provide a plot of land for camping or, at the very least, some dumpsters near the underpass. She said she prefers being in the camp to living somewhere alone: “We’re all family in one way or another, all one big family.” Photo: Emilie Raguso
Thomas, who most recently has been living near the Gilman underpass. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Thomas Barnett, who most recently has been living near the Gilman underpass. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Thomas Barnett, 55, agrees.

“You have to be there at their time, certain times,” he said. “If I go down there I could be missing out on making a few dollars (from scavenging).”

He said he also needs a place, like a workshop or a garage, where he could keep all his bikes and other items safe.

Barnett was born in Santa Rosa but moved when he was young with his family to Oklahoma. He lived for years in Broken Arrow working as a supervisor in a product plant. The work was relentless and one night after working for many hours straight he crashed his truck going 70 mph. The accident wrenched his back so he couldn’t work. It sent him in a downward spiral, one that brought him to the streets of Berkeley about 18 years ago, he said. Life is still traumatic for Barnett. In the fall, his 21-year-old son died of a heart attack after drinking two energy drinks in quick succession.

Barnett gets $780 from General Assistance and supplements his income by rebuilding bicycles. He had two distinct piles of bicycle parts along Eastshore Freeway, one of rims, one of tires. Barnett said the bikes, many of which are in what he calls “junky” condition, are not stolen. He finds discarded ones around, he said. And people bring them to him to barter or sell.

When someone offers him a bike that looks like it may have been stolen, he said, he makes up a reason not to take it. Working on the bikes gives him something to keep himself busy.

“It’s something to occupy my time,” he said. “There’s really not anything to do.”

Homeless camp at the Gilman underpass, June 23, 2016, Thomas Barnett. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Some of Thomas Barnett’s bikes near the Gilman underpass last week. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Homeless camp at the Gilman underpass, June 23, 2016, Jacob. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Jacob, who stays in the homeless camp at the Gilman underpass, says it’s a good place to live because “it’s dry when it rains.” He said he would help keep the area clean if the city provided trash bins. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Many Berkeleyside readers have commented that they think the heaps of bikes in that area are mostly stolen. They ask why police can’t do anything about it.

Officer Scott says police can’t just go up to someone and ask to look at a bike or bike part. Police need probable cause to search someone. If a person says something like “My bike was stolen and it had a red frame and this kind of wheel and I see a similar bike in the pile,” then police can investigate.

Many of those at the Gilman underpass said they are tired of being hassled by Caltrans and Berkeley workers and police. Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center who frequently represents the homeless in court, said he is thinking about filing a class action suit because people’s possessions keep getting confiscated during the sweeps.

Many beneath the freeway believe the city should give them a plot of land on which to live rather than criminalizing them for camping on the sidewalk.

“We have a right to exist without paying rent,” said Brandon, 41. He did not provide his last name. “Where should we go?”

“You just go to where you can. You just stick it out until they tell you to leave,” said another man nearby, who declined to give his name because of a pending claim of his own against Caltrans for confiscated property.

The idea of setting aside an area for the homeless might not be a total pipe dream. Berkeley has allowed a number of short-term experiments where people without homes have been allowed to stay. The most famous may have been Rainbow Village, set up in 1985 near the dump. Berkeley set aside about half an acre for cars and vans to park. At its peak, there were about 40 people there.

But Berkeley shut the village down after two of its dwellers, “Deadheads” who were passing through, were murdered.

In November and part of December, a number of homeless activists set up an encampment in front of Old City Hall. They named it Liberty City and said they would police themselves. They made the camp alcohol and drug free and even booted out some prostitutes.

But Berkeley regarded Liberty City as a health hazard and shut it down.

The city is considering another self-rule experiment, according to Councilwoman Linda Maio, who declined to give details because the planning is in the early stages.

In the meantime, residents beneath the freeway say they would, at the very least, like to have a dumpster or some smaller trash bins nearby. But that doesn’t appear to be a likely outcome, at least for now.

“With limited resources, efforts are put toward putting people into housing rather than into services such as garbage or portable restrooms for encampments,” said Matthai Chakko, city spokesman. “In terms of delivering services, it’s the smartest and best use of money.”

Related:
Would a homeless mayor in Berkeley make a difference for the homeless? (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: The fact sheet (06.29.16)
Berkeley mayoral hopefuls weigh in on homelessness (06.29.16)
Photos: Living on the streets of Berkeley (06.29.16)
Berkeley seeks to house those most in need at The Hub (06.29.16)
Berkeley homelessness: A timeline from 1982 to 2016 (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: An overview (06.29.16)
Berkeleyside will focus on homelessness Wednesday (06.28.19)
Share your questions about homelessness in Berkeley (06.21.16)

SF Homeless Project logoSee full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project. Read more about homelessness in Berkeley. This story is part of the Bay Area-wide initiative to document homeless issues. This endeavor, The San Francisco Homeless Project, includes 70 media organizations. Connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $10 a month or even less, or by making a one-time donation.