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California

Lawsuit seeks to stop L.A. from seizing and discarding homeless people’s belongings

Jesus Sanchez, left, and Javier Villarreal, right, with L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation participate in the cleanup of a homeless encampment in May in South Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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In the latest salvo in Los Angeles’ long-running battle over encampment sweeps, seven homeless people filed suit Thursday asking a federal judge to stop the city from destroying property seized from tents and lean-tos on city sidewalks.

The federal civil rights lawsuit seeks to strike down a city ordinance that allows sanitation crews to throw out so-called bulky items found in the streets.

It also requests an injunction preventing cleanup squads from confiscating tents, sleeping bags, medication and other items that an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles said are vital to homeless people’s survival — and frequently destroyed during camp sweeps.

The 59-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, says the city’s cleanup law and encampment enforcement violates constitutional protections against unreasonable seizures of private property and due process. The plaintiffs also include two citizen groups, Ktown for All and the Assn. for Responsible and Equitable Public Spending.

The lawsuit comes as homelessness continues to surge in Los Angeles, despite billions of dollars in state aid and voter-approved tax measures to open shelter beds and build subsidized housing, and amid a burst of legal action over enforcement in homeless camps.

The city has a decades-long history of litigation over homeless enforcement, which in 2007 produced a legal settlement allowing people to sleep overnight on city streets and in other public spaces while alternatives were lacking.

Four months ago, L.A. officials agreed to a legal settlement dialing back enforcement and confiscation of homeless property on skid row, a squalid 50-block section of downtown, but a coalition of shelter workers and property owners asked a court to block the agreement.

Last month, attorney Theodore Olson, a conservative legal hero and successful U.S. Supreme Court litigator, asked the high court to overturn a ruling preventing authorities in nine Western states, including California, from prosecuting homeless people for sleeping in the street when shelters are inadequate. The legal argument underlying that ruling is what led L.A. 12 years ago to let homeless people sleep in the streets .

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Lawyers and advocates involved in the latest suit said they had spent months in fruitless negotiations with Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council members before going to court. Advocates have called for the city to address public health and filth in and around encampments by spending more on portable bathrooms, showers, homeless storage and trash pickup.

“We did not come to the decision to file this lawsuit easily or quickly,” Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles attorney Shayla Myers said at a news conference. “We asked the city to break the cycle of litigation.”

“What the city did not do is address the unconstitutional issues of [cleanups], and in fact the city increased funding for enforcement,” Myers said.

Garcetti, in a prepared statement, said advocates for the homeless need to “stop the decades-long cycle of hoping courtrooms will solve our homelessness crisis and our public health challenges.”

“This dynamic has only resulted in the deterioration of conditions on the streets, even as more housing units and shelter beds are being built,” he said.

Jessica Lall, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn., a downtown-based business group, said she fears that blocking enforcement of the city’s cleanup law will make it more difficult for Garcetti and the council to open new temporary homeless shelters. The mayor promised those facilities would be accompanied by increased police patrols and cleanups.

“If you take away the city’s ability to maintain and clean the sidewalks, it’s going to make it challenging to convince residents to support projects right next to their homes,” she said.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, who plans to open three temporary homeless shelters in his Watts-to-San Pedro district, also voiced alarm over the new lawsuit. If the city’s lawyers don’t fight it aggressively, he said, L.A. will become “a city of filth and disease.”

“We’re doing so many cleanups in my district,” he said. “And you know what we’re finding? Soiled food. Soiled mattresses. Used needles and trash.”

But Mike Dickerson of Ktown for All, a homeless advocacy group, said there was a growing belief in his neighborhood that the sweeps were “incredibly ineffective.”

“Sanitation quite often leaves behind piles of trash,” Dickerson said after the news conference. “They throw away brooms and dustpans people are using to clean their areas.

“Instead of combating homelessness, we find ourselves spending hundreds of dollars replacing tents and blankets for our homeless neighbors.”

Plaintiff Janet Garcia, 48, said city sanitation teams have repeatedly confiscated and tossed out supplies she uses for office and housing cleaning jobs she finds online. Garcia, in an interview after the news conference, said she had been living in the streets of Van Nuys since her eviction from a nearby apartment two years ago.

“I had just bought a tiny hand vacuum cleaner and they just swept it away,” Garcia said.

“And a couple of bikes. They throw it in the truck and crush it right in front of you,” she said, crying.

The lawsuit targets Municipal Code Section 56.11, which the city adopted in 2016 in an attempt to balance the quality of life of the larger community against homeless people’s rights and dire circumstances.

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The law, and an elaborate protocol the city adopted to carry it out, prohibits residents from blocking public sidewalks with their belongings, on the grounds that those spaces need to be “clean, sanitary and accessible.”

Under the terms, bulky items — those that are too large to fit into a 60-gallon trash bin, such as couches, chairs and mattresses — can be removed without prior notice and immediately discarded, while other confiscated property is to be stored in one of two facilities the city maintains downtown.

Homeless people are allowed to move their belongings during the cleanups and then return to their spots.

The city conducts regular, noticed cleanups in Venice Beach and downtown, particularly on skid row, and spot cleanups by police-led sanitation teams in response to citizen complaints. Los Angeles plans to spend $40 million this year on camp cleanups.

In practice, hazmat workers often find possessions contaminated with urine or feces and throw away tents and their contents, and garbage and foul conditions quickly reappear after camp sweeps. In response to complaints about the seemingly Sisyphean cycle, the council voted in June to revamp the cleanup process.

In their lawsuit, homeless advocates said city workers seize tents, sleeping bags, clothing and other possessions without providing homeless people a formal process for challenging their actions. They also contend the city’s definition of what is or is not bulky is arbitrary and inconsistently enforced.

“As a result, one day, sanitation workers will seize carts and camp chairs from residents. On another day, at another encampment, they will seize ‘inoperable’ bicycles and pallets,” the lawsuit states.

Garcetti said the city should be able to resolve the dispute without a legal fight.

“I would hope that advocates would continue working with us ... building on the new and fruitful discussions with the city to find a better way forward,” he said.

 
David Zahniser covers Los Angeles City Hall for the Los Angeles Times.
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