When we first set out to report this story, we wanted to answer what seemed, at the time, like a simple question: Who’s responsible for cleaning up and clearing out the space beneath California’s highway overpasses?
If you’ve driven downtown, you’ve seen it: shopping carts stuffed to their metal gills, shoddy tents, sleeping bags, mounds of junk, or at least that’s what it looks like from the comfort of your car.
But take a walk along the railroad tracks underneath Interstate 80 and you’ll see that junk actually belongs to someone, to people like Daria Racher, who calls the space home.
Since many of these homeless encampments fall on state property, it’s up to CalTrans maintenance crews to make sure they’re kept clear.
"The on-going issue that our maintenance folks and clean up folks have to deal with are these large homeless encampments, and you typically see them along Interstate 80, or Highway 160, closer to the downtown area," said Dennis Keaton, Public Information Officer for CalTrans.
Over the past five years, officials say the cost of clearing out these encampments has increased exponentially.
The state spent $7.5 million in fiscal year 2016-2016 cleaning up the state’s homeless population from under its highway overpasses, which is twice as much as it did two years ago.
“In some of these clean-up areas, what we’re talking about, what’s needed is HAZMAT clean up, because they have to deal with hypodermic needles being recovered," said Keaton. "They also have to deal with cleanup of human waste and feces and that type of stuff, and so our guys have to get completely covered up in trying to do this type of clean up. Sometimes it takes a matter of days and maybe up to a week, depending on how large the encampment is."
Before cleaning out the area, CalTrans crews give the homeless three days’ notice to vacate the property, as well as access to services to help get them off the street. If any belongings are left behind, CalTrans is responsible for storing the possessions for 90 days so that the homeless have a chance to collect their things.
“But the more fundamental problem is where should homeless people be permitted to be," said Mark Merin, a civil right attorney in Sacramento. "We don’t have public housing…sufficient public housing for them, we don’t have jobs that will allow them to get out of homelessness, we don’t have mental institutions for people who need it, we don’t have sufficient alcohol or other recovery programs for folks. We have an increasing number of people who are living on the street unsheltered. That’s a more fundamental problem than how do you deal with the trash."
While trash removal may seem insignificant to the more pressing issue of ensuring folks have a place to sleep every night, we wanted to get an idea of just how much the trash removal is costing tax payers. Officials said they shelled out at least $3,000 for a recent clean up job in Sacramento, and have spent nearly $20 million clearing out encampments statewide since 2012.
“A lot of the working people, are sick and tired of the homeless being, like, this messy, but, if someone could just give us a chance, like, saying me, if you gave me a home I would get off drugs, I would get off drugs so fast," said Racher.