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Lawsuit says L.A. endangered homeless people by seizing their tents and shopping carts

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday accused the city of Los Angeles of endangering homeless people by seizing and destroying their tents and bedding and then releasing them from jail into the cold without protection.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, accused the city of wrongfully arresting homeless people and seizing their lawful shopping carts as part of a "criminalization" campaign.

Carl Mitchell, 62, was arrested this year on skid row and charged with possession of a stolen shopping cart that he said he had not taken, the suit said. An LAPD officer refused to give him his backpack containing medications and medical appointment papers. He was jailed for 18 hours and released in the middle of the night when the temperature dipped to 40 degrees, the suit said.

Judy Coleman, who also was arrested on suspicion of possession of a stolen shopping cart, suffers from arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure  She was jailed for two days then released without medication Feb. 14 and was later hospitalized with pneumonia, the suit said.

"Over the past 25 years, the city's primary response has been to invest in approaches that address the visible presence of homeless people without actually reducing the number of residents on streets each night," the lawsuit charged.

"The city's actions prove the definition of insanity -- repeating the same constitutional violations and thinking, somehow, it will come out differently each time," said Carol Sobel, the plaintiff's lawyer who has successfully sued the city several times over its homeless policies.  The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and several private law firms also represent the plaintiffs.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said he hadn't seen the suit. Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said the office would review the lawsuit, but had no comment.

City officials this year released a $2-billion plan to combat the homelessness crisis, but said they did not have the money to fund it.

The lawsuit said that as officials deliberated the plan, the city launched "a renewed vigorous and cruel enforcement of so-called 'quality of life' offenses against the homeless, charging many with misdemeanor offenses, jailing the homeless and seizing and destroying their property," the suit charged.

"We see two plans: a rhetorical plan of what we're going to do when we can, and an actual plan, which is ticketing and arresting people and taking and destroying their property," said Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network, a plaintiff in the suit.

The suit asks the court to order the city to replace homeless people's blankets, tents, medication and important documents seized for any reason. It also seeks a temporary restraining order against the city's enforcement practices.

On Monday morning, several homeless people sorting through piles of clothing and blankets after a Caltrans encampment cleanup on Hoover Street in Historic Filipinotown said the LAPD and city sanitation workers had repeatedly seized and destroyed their tents and other belongings in recent months.

Rebecca Dutoit, 43, said the LAPD took her tent, blankets, bedding, clothes and jewelry during a cleanup in East Hollywood 1½ months ago. She said she would not consider a shelter because they won’t take in her terrier puppy Ewok and two-week-old kitten, Moory.

"They are my sanity," Dutoit said.

Nina Goyena, a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer who dropped by the Hoover Street encampment with pastries and sandwiches, said many homeless people had lost their jobs and can't afford a home.

"Where will they go?" Goyena said. "Maybe they could provide them with trash bags."

Twitter: @geholland

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