Lodi News-Sentinel

Caltrans can clear ‘high-risk’ homeless camps, court rules

- Darrell Smith

Caltrans can begin to clear a pair of high-risk Bay Area homeless encampment­s as early as next week, a federal appeals judge ruled this week.

The Wednesday decision overturnin­g an earlier court ruling, says the agency’s actions to relocate unhoused people from the Emeryville sites did not violate the Americans with Disabiliti­es Act.

A federal district court judge granted a six-month delay last year after Berkeley-based homeless outreach organizati­on Where Do We Go Berkeley sued Caltrans on ADA grounds last year to temporaril­y stop the removal of two camps along Interstate 80 near Emeryville in Alameda County to allow campers more time to relocate.

But in a 25-page ruling Wednesday, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ryan D. Nelson lifted the injunction saying the ADA doesn’t require so long a delay and chided what he said was the district court’s overreach in imposing the stay.

“We vacate the district’s order because there is no serious question that the ADA requires such a lengthy delay,” Nelson wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel including justices Jay S. Bybee and Arizona District Judge Susan R. Bolton. “We also hold that the district court abused its discretion when evaluating the injunction’s harm to Caltrans and public safety.”

The Berkeley group’s 2021 suit was but the latest in a long line of legal actions filed by homeless advocates in protest of Caltrans’ camp clearing procedures. They include a 2016 class-action suit filed in Alameda Superior Court that alleged Caltrans cleared camps near highways and freeway overpasses without giving proper notice.

The agency in February 2020 agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle claims it had illegally removed and destroyed homeless people’s belongings at the camps.

Nelson, the judge, cited Caltrans’ authority “to do any act necessary…for the maintenanc­e or use of all highways” and to clear encampment­s based on the public safety risks they pose.

Camps like those at issue clustered along the Ashby freeway exit, Nelson ruled, pose a “critical safety concern” — sitting in the path of cars, near utility poles or otherwise blocking auto, bicycle or foot traffic where they pose an imminent danger to the public.

Caltrans, Nelson wrote, usually provides 72 hours’ notice to vacate such camps.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom welcomed the ruling in a Wednesday statement.

“The court made it abundantly clear that Caltrans can proceed with the important work revitalizi­ng California’s streets and roadways by clearing unsafe encampment­s which are hazardous to both the general public and those living unsheltere­d throughout our state,” Newsom said. “This is a welcome ruling confirming that we don’t have to let these dangerous conditions continue without taking urgent action.”

Caltrans has been trying to clear the camps since July 2020, according to the appeals court opinion, working with Emeryville officials and the Berkeley outreach group to tell campers they would soon need to move from their Ashby freeway encampment.

By February 2021, constructi­on of a housing project set to begin weeks later in March, renewed the agency’s efforts to evict the campers. The March start was delayed until May and by June 2021, Caltrans had posted notices telling the campers to move on.

The Berkeley group successful­ly sued, arguing that in evicting the campers, many of whom, the group said, have physical and mental disabiliti­es, Caltrans violated the ADA by not taking those disabiliti­es into considerat­ion when forcing the move. Judge Edward M. Chen of the U.S. District Court for Northern California in August granted the injunction, giving the campers six months to find housing.

But the lifting of the injunction restarts the clock.

Evictions are slated to happen May 4 and 5, Where Do We Go Berkeley representa­tives said in a blog post.

 ?? COURTESY PHOTOGRAPH ?? Caltrans cleared an encampment at the cloverleaf at Turner Road and Highway 99 in Lodi in early March.
COURTESY PHOTOGRAPH Caltrans cleared an encampment at the cloverleaf at Turner Road and Highway 99 in Lodi in early March.

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