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L.A. Will Pay 41 Homeless for Belongings

Times Staff Writer

In what civil liberties lawyers call an extraordinary concession, the city of Los Angeles has agreed to pay $500 each to 41 street people whose belongings were destroyed in a police sweep in June.

For the attorneys who negotiated the agreement, it marked an important victory that they said should discourage officials from further such seizures.

But for the 41 men and women who lost most of their possessions in the raid, the windfall provided a chance to try to get off the streets, and most were excitedly planning ways to do that.

While the city did not admit any wrongdoing in the agreement, and there was no formal guarantee that such a sweep would not occur again, attorney James H. Davis, who filed the claims on behalf of the homeless men and women, said, “I believe this has (already) affected the attitude and practice (of police) everywhere in this city.”

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In Orange County, the agreement was hailed by advocates for the homeless who are battling the city of Santa Ana’s policy of discarding personal possessions found in public places.

“It shows an understanding that they’ve created real harm to people,” said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, which, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, has filed suit against Santa Ana to stop city workers from destroying homeless people’s unattended property. “We think that’s positive.”

On Aug. 31, the Legal Aid Society and the ACLU won a temporary restraining order requiring Santa Ana to store the bedrolls and other belongings that cleanup crews collect from public parks and the Civic Center. But the groups have not asked Santa Ana to compensate their clients for the property that work crews have been throwing out since late May.

Santa Ana City Atty. Edward J. Cooper refused to comment on the payment agreement in Los Angeles, but he said that if any homeless people in Santa Ana filed “justifiable” claims for compensation for their destroyed property, the city probably would pay the claims.

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“We’d investigate the facts, and if it appeared to be a lawful claim, a justifiable claim, we probably would” pay compensation, he said. “We generally do pay claims that are justified.”

Cohen said he is discussing with talking to his clients about the possibility of seeking compensation from the city of Santa Ana with his clients.

Reason for Settling Unclear

It was not clear why the city of Los Angeles settled the claims without a court fight. Los Angeles, like most cities, rejects virtually all claims against it, forcing aggrieved parties to drop the issue or file a lawsuit. City Atty. James K. Hahn did not respond Thursday to requests for an interview. Other than to confirm the agreement, city officials would not discuss the case, saying that they plan to hold a press conference next week.

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As news of the $20,500 settlement buzzed along the homeless’ grapevine downtown, all sorts of plans were being made to spend the money. But just about all the people involved mentioned the hope that the $500 will help them get a roof over their heads.

“We’re going to get a place and get married,” said Joseph Wilson, 27, who has been sleeping on the streets while attending National Technical School to study word processing. “I’m trying to get ahead, I’m trying to have a future. . . . And I really want to get off the street.”

“I’m going to get an apartment until I can get into the (military) service,” said Rick James, 26. “This money means a great deal to me.”

Joseph Gabriel, 48, said he hopes to “get a place and get off the street. The streets are making me old.” An address, he said, will make it easier for him to again receive benefits under a medical disability program.

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But even as the joy swept through an encampment on 1st Street, some of the homeless’ most vocal advocates were warning that $500 will do little to change the lot of people who need education, job training, and medical and legal help to put their lives back on track.

“Five hundred dollars is not going to get anybody off the street,” said Ted Hayes, an organizer of the homeless and one of the 41 to file a claim against the city.

‘Cardboard Condos’

The claims against the city resulted from a police sweep of two homeless camps in the shadow of City Hall along 1st Street. The indigents had been camped in “cardboard condos” along the sidewalk for about a week, after state officials drove them out of a small nearby park.

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Police officers on the homeless detail said they spotted the camp and called the Bureau of Street Maintenance to supply two skip loaders and two dump trucks to scoop up and remove the belongings of an estimated 50 street people.

Authorities said they gave people at the camp 30 minutes to clear out their gear. But those who were away--finding a meal or looking for day labor--returned to learn that all of their possessions were gone. Some attempted to retrieve their goods, but within an hour the belongings had been buried in a San Fernando Valley landfill.

Members of the camp said they lost everything from medicine and identification papers to clothing, small appliances and bedrolls.

Davis said he filed the claims on constitutional grounds that bar unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

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He and Gary L. Blasi, a Legal Aid attorney, said similar claims and lawsuits are pending in several counties and cities around the state. The payment, they said, is the first of its kind to homeless that they are aware of.

Mayor Tom Bradley, who ordered changes in the city policy on homeless sweeps after the June incident and the filing of the claims, was en route to South Korea to attend the Olympic Games and was not available for comment.

Police disputed the attorneys’ claim that the settlement would change policy.

One Organizer Worries

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Al Beatty, one of the organizers of the 1st Street camp, was worried that some of the beneficiaries will spend their $500 on drugs and alcohol.

Beatty said he and his girlfriend, who also is to receive $500, are going to live with relatives in Oakland, where he has been promised help in getting a job on the docks. “Overall, there are four to five couples that are deciding to just move on to Denver, Seattle and Sacramento,” he said.

A few others, despite optimistic words, seemed uncertain as to what they will do.

“I guess I’ll look for something cheap,” William Jones said.

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And for those who are living at the street camp and have no payment coming, there was concern that matters will take a turn for the worse.

“We know what’s going to happen here,” Beatty said. “Once we get paid, (the city) will say there’s no reason for anybody to be here. It’s coming down.”

Times staff writer Laura Kurtzman in Orange County contributed to this story.


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