On Monday, March 29th, at around 11 AM, half a dozen California Highway Patrol officers, accompanied by ten CalTrans employees and contractors, showed up at the door of Joaquin Wright. Wright, who lives under Highway 50 in an RV trailer, came out to talk to them, already knowing why they were there. CalTrans was kicking him out.
For the past several weeks, efforts have been ramping up to relocate and provide services for the unhoused living under Highway 50, between W and X Street in Midtown, Sacramento. The catalyst for this effort is the long-awaited Highway 50 Expansion Project, which is slated to begin construction in the next few weeks.
The $450 million project begins at 5th St., with construction continuing East along Highway 50 all the way past Watt Avenue. Over the 4-year construction timeline, parking lots and streets under the freeway will undergo rolling closures. In preparation for this construction, and in order to protect people from falling debris, CalTrans is closing much of the sidewalk under the highway. This includes removing anyone living on the sidewalk or within 25 feet of the construction.
In order to give the people being removed a place to go, the City of Sacramento, at the urging of Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, has set up “Safe Ground” parking and camping sites located along W and X Street at the edge of the parking lot where the Saturday Farmers Market used to be. These Safe Ground shelters serve as a place the unhoused can stay while waiting for the construction to end, and come with porta-potties and sinks.
According to Councilmember Valenzuela, after the majority of the homeless have moved to the Safe Ground locations, the city will begin layering services onto the campsites for those living there. These include program navigators, trailers with showers, and access to food. Additionally, according to Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the city is hoping to set up some 30 tiny homes on site in the next few weeks.
Yet, despite this help from the city, it has been Sacramento Homeless Union members who have picked up the slack when the city failed to provide adequate outreach to those living under the freeway or assistance in moving their belongings. From canvassing and spreading the word about the new Safe Ground sites to renting a U-Haul in order to help people move on such short notice, Union members have spent many unpaid hours assisting the city with what is ostensibly their problem to deal with.
Although CalTrans and the CHP do have the legal right to evict people living on public property, both CalTrans and the city have suffered multiple lawsuits and public outcry over their treatment of the unhoused. CalTrans recently settled a lawsuit made against them for illegally destroying the property of people living on public land for $5.5 million. The City of Sacramento is currently facing a lawsuit from the Sacramento Homeless Union for illegally removing encampments in contempt of a court order demanding they halt such evictions.
Even with these incentives to provide support for those without housing, when a fire burned down a tent on 22nd Street in the middle of the day on Monday, it was Brother Carter with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign who had a spare tent to give. When one man living under the freeway in an RV asked a CHP officer if they had any resources they could offer him to help move his RV, the officer turned to Sacramento Homeless Union members gathered nearby.
Yet even still, many homelessness advocates see this as a very good sign that CalTrans may finally be on the way to cooperating with local jurisdictions and organizations. When it became clear to advocates on Sunday evening that many people were going to be unable to move Monday, Katie Valenzuela reached out to a contact with CalTrans, asking them to hold off on clearing crowded streets and RVs—a request which they honored.
Shaun, pictured above and to the left, was recently accepted into the city’s motel voucher program. When Sacramento Homeless Union volunteers began helping Art, on the right, pack up his supplies and tent to move to the Safe Ground lot, Shaun offered his larger tent to Art. “It’s not like I’m gonna need it,” he said.Wright, meanwhile, only wants a place to go and some help getting there. A former social worker, he takes offense at the term “homeless.”
“What am I missing,” he said, that the people living in homes next to the freeway have? “Besides running water, what am I missing?”
Although he has a vehicle able to tow his RV, someone stole the hitch to tow it with. Sacramento Homeless Union members put out a call for community aid and checked with the U-Haul on Broadway, but no one had the type of hitch he needs—a ball hitch with sway bar attachments. “It’s above our capacity,” wrote one Union organizer, saying, “[This] needs to be triaged to Bridgette Dean.” Bridgette is the head of the city’s new Office of Community Response.
Without such aid from the city, however, people like Joaquin who have been living peacefully under the freeway for months may be unable to get out of CalTrans’ way in time. And although Councilmember Valenzuela has asked for the city to provide a tow to those under the freeway who are unable to move, such aid has yet to materialize.
Until and unless a tow truck appears to help assist those needing to move, if any community members have a ball hitch with sway bar attachments, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.