Saturday, December 14, 2013

CA: State's homeless policy bad for homeless, hurts workers too.

by Mike Benca*

I've been an employee of the State of California for the past year.  Starting July 1st of this year I've been working out of an Oakland maintenance yard.  Over these past six months I have been periodically working with my co-workers to remove homeless encampments located on state property that is solely owned by Caltrans.  Prior to transferring to the Oakland yard I had no previous experience dealing with California's homeless population and I quickly became quite shocked at the severity of the social problem.  

My yard conducts homeless "clean-ups" sometimes up to three times per month.  The policy of the state is to provide a minimum of 72 hours of notice prior to state workers removing belongings.  Per California penal code the occupants of the property are to be notified that they are trespassing and they will be subject to removal and arrest if they don't comply.  The California Highway Patrol (CHP) has jurisdiction and are frequently requested by us Caltrans workers to provide protection to us while we remove the homeless encampments.  

Sometimes, Caltrans workers are assisted by a contractor to remove and clean "sites". The contractor (Adopt a Highway) pays the workers working alongside us Caltrans workers around $10.00 an hour. When adding in fringe benefits, these contract workers are making far less than the state employees.  I find it almost always difficult to get through "homeless" work-days.  Being a part of the perpetual cycle of homelessness takes a mental toll on one's self.

Many of the homeless people are pushed from one side of the freeway to another.  We are simply cleaning up their living area and then it's on to the next site only to return within a month to clean up the same spot.  Every worker there knows that this is a perpetual chronic problem and that the state is not solving the crisis of homelessness and displaced people.  Almost every time we remove a person and their encampment, they return with a few days.  The process always repeats itself.  

An alarming consequence of doing this work is the desensitizing effect it can have on workers. Often times, throughout the day homeless people’s belongings are not treated with respect, nor is the living area they established.  Occasionally people can be chastised, laughed at and ridiculed.  On several occasions I’ve had to remind some of the contract workers in particular to have respect for the people we are interacting with.  It's ironic because a lot of the workers removing the homeless people are likely not that far removed from being "out in the street themselves".  One of the contracted workers I am told is living out of his car currently.  

The state (Caltrans) is spending money to remove large quantities of debris from these homeless sites numerous times a month.  This, in my eyes is not a rational way of dealing with the crisis of poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and displaced and homeless people.  The entire process is an unfortunate look at the inside of homelessness in our communities and the perspective of a working class person who has a first hand account of the situation.

*Mike Benca is a Cal-Trans worker in the East Bay living in San Leandro. He sent this commentary for our readers. He can be contacted at:


Stephen Carbonaro said...

This mirrors my experience working for CAL-Trans in the early eighties. Working along Interstate 580 through San Leandro, there were several locations where homeless would encamp. And yes, destroying the places these folks called home was heartbreaking. No contract workers then; the state was still employing a "full" workforce. Last time I checked, our crew of 12 had been whittled down to 2.

tina braxton, formerly homeless said...

Only the most despicable person would do this kind of "work." It would be better to go hungry. If they open a concentration camp, are you going to "work" there, too?

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to hear of your homeless experience Tina. But to demand that a worker in this position, clearly a sympathetic worker, basically quit their job which would accomplish nothing but mean their children would go hungry seem, would be a disaster. Who does that?

And to compare it to being a guard at Aushwitz which is what you seem to be doing is completely off base. Workers that deliver goods to fast food restaurants are contributing to the exploitation of the low waged. What should they do?