The area near University Avenue and Frontage Road in West Berkeley has turned into a dumping ground of sorts, with an ever-expanding mound of trash piling up.
People who live nearby or drive their cars through the area have complained to Berkeley numerous times about what they consider an eyesore.
“I drive by this cesspool every day,” said Jeff Thornton, who said he has seen the problem grow from one day to the next. “I think the city has abdicated its authority and it’s an embarrassment for all of us.”
But city officials say there is nothing they can do. The land belongs to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and that agency must clean it up – which it says it does regularly.
The stand-off has created a bureaucratic impasse.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he has received many complaints about the area, but doesn’t have the jurisdiction to deal with it directly. “The main issue is that Caltrans has not kept up with their clean-up,” he said, calling the problem a health-and-safety, as well as a visual, issue. “It’s unacceptable.”
The area is also currently home to an encampment of an estimated 17 people. Those residents also say the situation is reaching a breaking point.
Darice McClendon has lived at the encampment since August, with her ex-boyfriend and her pit bull, Faith. She says homeless people don’t want to live in such filthy conditions. “I want to clean it up,” she said. “I don’t want it just as much as they don’t.”
While passers-by might assume that it is the people camping out who have created the blight, that is not necessarily the case, said Arreguín.
“The presence of the encampment invites dumping, invites trash,” Arreguín said. “A lot of the trash you see is not necessarily the result of homeless people.”
Arreguín would like to see more measures to prevent dumping, such as extra cameras, signage and clean-up crews. One of his top issues is to prioritize clean streets in Berkeley, he said. Trash running off into the Bay itself is also a worry.
Not everyone believes that Berkeley can abdicate its responsibility, however. Some of the trash is on city property, said Bob Blomberg in an email to Berkeleyside.
“There are additional trash piles along the streets that branch off from the frontage road, and these ARE in the city’s jurisdiction and should be addressed,” he wrote. “We differentiate the trash from the piles of possessions that are attached to one or more of the homeless people.”
Ultimately, though, the issue calls for a better working relationship between the city and Caltrans, said Arreguín. He wants clearer communication channels, as well as pre-approval for the city to step in when the situation calls for it.
“At the end of the day it’s not our property,” said Arreguín, “and it would be preferable if we didn’t have to spend our city’s tax dollars [on it].”
Rocquel Johnson, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, said the department has regularly scheduled clean-ups for the area, and that a crew will be tackling it next week, probably between Jan. 24 and 25.
“We are aware that there is a need for us to go out and do illegal encampment clean-ups and removals,” she said.
Looking at her records, Johnson said that the intersection was last cleaned between Jan. 10 and 14. But on Jan. 16, discarded furniture, bags and other detritus were piled up, so much that it didn’t seem possible that it had been cleaned recently.
Cleaning times can be knocked back when other jobs take precedence, such as drainage repair, said Johnson. Homeless people living at the intersection said that Caltrans crews sometimes turned up, but left the area in the same state they found it if the garbage looked too unsanitary.
McClendon said those living in the homeless encampment have gathered trash and arranged it by the roadside where Caltrans workers have picked it up. But she believes the state agency lets the garbage pile up on purpose.
“Their intention is for it to look as hazardous as possible to get us kicked out,” she said.
Erik La’Hoighya, who has lived at the intersection for nearly a year, agreed. “They say they’re gonna show up, make us move all our stuff out of the way, then never show up,” he said. “This is an assault on homeless people… We need bags, and we need people willing to work with us, not against us.”
Littering is not an inevitable side-effect of homelessness, he said. “Does it bother me? Yes, it fucking bothers me! I didn’t grow up living like this!”
When the land is cleaned, though, homeless residents cannot expect to remain undisturbed. “Everything is removed and cleaned up,” said Johnson. “The intention is to clear everything off that land.” Caltrans works with the California Highway Patrol to move out homeless people, and the city to help resettle them.
“Cities have more resources than we do when it comes to assisting people who are homeless,” said Johnson. “It’s about partnership.”
McClendon, though, like many other homeless people, does not want to end up in a shelter, even if there was space for her. She sees shelters as unsafe, from experience – often places where fights start and possessions are stolen. Others fear the institutionalization that comes with shelters, taking away the little freedom that homeless people enjoy.