As California's homeless population skyrockets, the cost of
cleaning up the state's numerous shanty towns is also hitting
record highs -- and the price tag is likely to keep rising as
workers tasked with tossing the vagrants' syringes, feces and
buckets of urine fight for safer conditions.
The Golden State's homeless population of more than 130,000
people is now about 25 percent of the nationwide total, and
cleaning up after the surging group is getting costly -- topping
$10 million in 2016-17. But the human cost is getting equally
untenable, a workers' advocate says.
In an official grievance filed last week, the union representing
California's maintenance workers accused the state of subjecting
its members to hazardous conditions without proper training or
"It is the Union's contention that Caltrans is not ensuring that
our members are being provided the appropriate Personal
Protective Equipment (PPE), necessary training, necessary
vaccinations and proper compensation for the dangerous hazmat
duties they are performing when cleaning up homeless encampments
on State Caltrans property," International Union of Operating
Engineers director Steve Crouch said in the complaint.
Crouch told KTVU on Monday that maintenance crews often have to
work in areas where the ground is muddy, slippery and ridden
with debris that can include objects that are exceedingly sharp.
Other items are simply dangerous to touch, such as potentially
toxic or biologically unsafe materials.
"Feces and urine and feminine products and all kinds of things
on the ground; needles, syringes, you know they use buckets,
five-gallon buckets for toilets and it gets really disgusting,"
Besides the prospect of touching dangerous material, workers are
also confronted with the open hostility from the "residents" of
the encampments they are trying to clear.
"Sometime they have pit bulls in there. They'll, you know, let
the dogs loose to chase the Caltrans workers out," Crouch said.
"Sometimes they'll throw rocks at the Caltrans workers."
In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, one Caltrans worker who
asked not to be named due to fear of retribution said he's been
involved in six cleanups so far this year but only been given a
pair of gloves as protection.
“I’ve been exposed to blood, needles, women’s feminine products…
five-gallon buckets of human feces,” he told The Bee.
"I’ve been exposed to blood, needles, women’s feminine products…
five-gallon buckets of human feces."
- Caltrans maintenance worker
The department told KTVU in a statement that, "Safety is a top
priority for Caltrans and we will carefully review the
The surge of homelessness in the Golden State is also costing
the state tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. Caltrans said in
its Mile Marker magazine the department has spent about $29.2
million in cleaning up encampments since fiscal year 2012-13.
In the past year alone, Caltrans estimated the cleanup costs in
2016-17 topped $10 million, a 34 percent increase over the
previous year across all 12 regional districts. Maintenance
crews encountered about 7,000 homeless camps on rights of way of
the state's 254 highways.
California's homeless population ticked up by 13.7 percent to
134,278 people in the past year, about 25 percent of the
national total, according to a U.S Department of Housing and
Urban Development report.
"Homelessness is a problem throughout the country, but is more
visible in California where HUD reported 68.2 percent of the
homeless population lives in unsheltered locations such as
streets and parks," Caltrans said in its report. "That is the
highest percentage in the country."
A typical camp cleanup takes days to complete, according to the
agency, with a notification first posted at the site at least 72
hours before crews arrive.
Crouch said Monday he hopes his grievance causes the department
to focus on keeping the transportation system moving.
"Their job is to maintain the highways and freeways, you know,
that's filling the potholes, that's doing the striping of the
lines, that's doing the guardrails alone the edge, that's
trimming the trees and shrubs and bushes along the highway," he
said. "Their job is not to clean up homeless encampments."