Clarence Galtney: The OG of Harrison Street

by Bradley Penner

As mounting pressure from the City of Berkeley brings Eighth and Harrison to its breaking point, one resident sheds light through the cracks

Clarence “OG” Galtney, 65, spent the morning of November 6 bagging possessions and clearing the perimeter of his tent on Harrison Street, a process he says he’s gone through over twenty times in Berkeley over the past ten years. 

The sweep Galtney was preparing for had been a long time coming. The city has been trying to clear the encampment for years but was stalled in recent months by a temporary restraining order under Prado v. City of Berkeley, a lawsuit by encampment residents that sought to stop the city from evicting them until adequate shelter was available. It also asked the city to provide adequate notice, and accommodate their disability-related needs in shelter or housing offers. 

After two months of litigation, Judge Edward Chen of the North District court dissolved the restraining order, allowing Berkeley’s Homeless Response Team (HRT) to schedule a three-day “nuisance abatement” to begin on November 7. Public postings for the abatement stated that it intended to target the “streets and sidewalks of Harrison St [sic] between 7th St and 8th St,” the stretch of the encampment that Galtney has called home for the past nine years. 

To ensure his possessions wouldn’t be thrown away in the flurry and chaos of the sweep, Galtney methodically organized clothes, hygiene supplies, and cookware in stacks along the sidewalk. Things he didn’t want or need were thrown into a pile for the city to remove in the morning. 

“It’s like every time I buy something, by the end of the week, they come and say, ‘You don’t need this, you don’t need that,’” Galtney said as he swept debris into the street.

“How do they know what a person needs and doesn’t need? If I just bought this pot—because I need this pot—how are you gonna sit up and say I don’t need this?”

The city’s abatement on November 7 was planned for one section of the larger encampment, but many of the residents at Eighth and Harrison—some of whom have accepted city offers for transitional housing only to end up back on the streets within weeks—understand the city’s ultimate goal is to close the encampment once and for all. 

Galtney’s past experience has taught him to suspect the worst from the city’s scheduled cleanings of Harrison Street. Just over a year ago, in October 2022, he lost his RV and all of his belongings during a sweep that the city later admitted was “overhanded,” during which officials gave vague and conflicting messaging, SF Public Press reports.

A carpet and floor fitter by trade with a penchant for hard work, Galtney has not relied on social services such as general assistance or food stamps to make ends meet in the decade he has lived on the streets. Instead, he collected recycling on a route he had established through Berkeley, and soon developed a working relationship with the local Blue Bottle Coffee on 7th Street, which allowed him to collect aluminum coffee cans on a weekly basis. 

“If it wasn’t for that coffee company, I wouldn’t be surviving right now today,” Galtney said. 

His effort and frugality soon paid off. After months of collecting recycling and saving the money he made at the Berkeley Recycling Center, Galtney was able to purchase an RV for $2,000. With the title in his name and engine problems to work on, he had been speaking with an outreach worker to get the RV’s registration up to date. Galtney also continued to gather recycling from Blue Bottle’s facility—sometimes in huge quantities—in hopes of rebuilding the engine of his new home.

“They made an order one day,” Galtney recounted, “and the order was so humongous it accumulated nine big bags. I’m talkin’ nine big, huge bags.” 

The aluminum cans inside the bags did not include lids, which would have substantially increased their refund value. Galtney decided to hold off on his return until he could gather the lids from Blue Bottle when they became available.

“But every time the city came by it was, ‘Clarence, what are you gonna do with your recycle?’ Well, I’m trying to get around that, put the lids on and take them on in.” 

On October 4, 2022, the day before the outreach worker would return with paperwork to register his RV with the DMV, he woke up at 6 a.m. to a knock on the door. The HRT had scheduled a sweep of the entire encampment, which Galtney believed was intended to clear the sidewalks of trash and debris. The sweep resulted in the loss of 29 tents, three self-made structures, and four vehicles—including Galtney’s RV and recycling.

“They asked me to come out and talk to them for a minute. If I had known what they meant by that, I would’ve slammed the door, locked it, and not said a word,” he said.

Once Galtney stepped out of his RV, the HRT did not allow him back inside. Citing the RV as a health and safety hazard due to rodent infestation, and without any time or permission to remove his possessions, the city towed it to an impound lot. The city also confiscated the large bags of recycling he had stored along the fence—an amount Galtney believes would’ve allowed him to work on his RV and live comfortably for up to six months. 

Any recourse to retrieve his RV was futile. Galtney was ultimately allowed a 30-minute window to collect as many possessions as he could from the impound lot before being escorted off the premises. Fifteen days after the city towed his home, it was demolished.

“All my clothes, my recycling, but most importantly family heirlooms from my mother and grandmother,” Galtney said. “You cannot put a price on that. That was the most crushing thing in my whole life.”

In October 2023, one year after the sweep during which Galtney lost his RV, he and Andrew Vanderzyl, another vehicle resident of 8th and Harrison, filed a lawsuit against the City of Berkeley. The lawsuit asked the city to reimburse a cumulative $23,915 for lost property and emotional distress during the October 2022 sweep. The two plaintiffs are currently representing themselves and in the process of seeking legal counsel. But the Berkeley City Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the case in November of this year, arguing that Galtney and Vanderzyl failed “to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” A hearing is scheduled for December 12, 2023.

After losing his RV, Galtney did his best to move forward. He received a housing voucher in early 2023 which allowed him to apply for apartments in Alameda County. Allotted 60 days to apply for housing and with little help navigating the application process, Galtney took the advice of an outreach worker and secured a single-room occupancy (SRO) at the YMCA in downtown Berkeley, paid for in part by Social Security checks that he became eligible for when he turned 65. But with limited storage space in his SRO and feeling homesick for his community, Galtney maintained a camp at Eighth and Harrison, which he would visit often. 

In September 2023, Galtney contracted COVID-19 and decided to quarantine in his tent at the encampment out of concern for other residents in the SRO. After weeks of battling the illness alongside complications with his chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, he learned that his room at the YMCA was under review, as staff believed he abandoned the space. 

With his room at the YMCA in flux pending review, Galtney’s return to Eighth and Harrison has coincided with the city’s renewed effort to close the encampment in its entirety. The impending sweeps have reinvigorated his commitment to advocate for the property and livelihood of his community.

Galtney is considered an elder within the community at-large, earning him the nickname and title of “OG.” He acts as the janitor, late-night security, and ensures that other encampment residents respect both each other and surrounding businesses. As development continues to close in around the long-standing encampment, Galtney has taken it upon himself to ensure that relationships with the larger West Berkeley community remain civil and in good standing. 

“I love this family, and when we came into this family, I can understand why we were upside down,” Galtney said, “But now we have unity. We have dignity and respect. We respect these companies. And I hope, with my power, with my god, that they respect us also.”

Whether he is informing new encampment residents of community rules, incentivizing his neighbors to maintain tidy camp sites, or keeping a vigilant eye out for individuals who come to 8th and Harrison to dump trash, steal belongings, or harm its residents, Galtney believes his care and oversight has made a profound difference in the day-to-day workings of the encampment as a whole. 

“We have guidelines here and we respect those guidelines. And if push comes to shove, we will come together to represent what we have here,” Galtney said.

But the city has begun to impose guidelines of its own. While not yet approved by Berkeley’s Homeless Services Panel of Experts or the City Council, the HRT has developed a list of Good Neighbor Guidelines that will dictate how the city prioritizes encampment cleanups and closures—a policy some residents believe is currently being piloted at Eighth and Harrison.

Citing existing municipal codes regarding obstruction of sidewalks and trespassing, the city’s abatement on November 7 completely closed a large section of the camp on Harrison Street, known among residents as “The Hovel.” The HRT arrested The Hovel’s primary resident for trespassing before the sweep began, removed the entirety of the structure, and erected a chain link fence along the edge of the sidewalk to prohibit residents from returning. 

Galtney’s tent—which sits twenty yards away from The Hovel—was left untouched by the HRT throughout the abatement, causing him both relief and confusion. Galtney is working to reestablish his tenancy at the YMCA, but remains hypervigilant of the city’s efforts to close the encampment he has called home for nine years.

Those efforts appear to be imminent. The City of Berkeley has posted a Notice of Encampment Closure scheduled for December 5, again addressed to “persons encamped on Harrison St [sic] between 7th and 8th.” 

The notice states that, “the City of Berkeley will be closing the encampment and removing accumulated possessions,” and that residents will be offered shelter “prior to and on the day of closure”—the same shelter options that the plaintiff in Prado v. City of Berkeley argues are not adequate to meet the needs of unhoused residents at Eighth and Harrison. 

Without adequate housing alternatives, mental health services, and empathy from the city or surrounding businesses, Galtney believes it is paramount that his community sticks together to the end.

”I understand we have different lives, lifestyles—we’re different people. But if you give us half a chance, you will see us as one community, just like any community you’d go to in this world today.”

Bradley Penner is the Co-Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.