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Homeless Angelenos Suing City For Taking Their Stuff

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The lawsuit alleges Los Angeles criminalizes homelessness and violates civil rights

As the homeless population in Los Angeles continues to swell, city officials are struggling with how to approach the problem. A comprehensive plan has been announced that could effectively end homelessness in LA, but funding to cover its $1.85-billion pricetag will probably require a ballot measure, putting it out of reach for the time being. Meanwhile, to placate a vocal group of LA residents who complain about the rise of homeless encampments in their neighborhoods, the LA City Council passed strict ordinances last year that gives police an enormous amount of power to clear the homeless and their possessions from sidewalks and streets (they replaced an earlier ordinance that was found to be unconstitutional).

Homeless advocates have denounced the ordinance from the beginning, saying it criminalizes homelessness—nearly all of the money LA spends on homelessness goes to law enforcement of this kind. The short notice for removal of property is a burden on a group of people who don't have a lot of options for getting around or even somewhere else to go. To up and move at the whim of police can prove impossible, even with the threat of arrest behind it.

Last summer, the Los Angeles City Council passed two ordinances shrinking the window of notice that law enforcement need to give before breaking up homeless encampments. Police now only need to give 24 hours notice (down from the original 72 hours notice) before they can legally seize a homeless person's property and issue a citation or misdemeanor charge (yep, a ticket for being homeless). Anything big like a large tent, table, or couch can be seized without any notice at all.

A new lawsuit filed against the city of Los Angeles says that ordinance oversteps its bounds and violates the civil rights of LA's homeless. According the LA Times, a group of homeless individuals and several homeless advocacy groups are suing the city in federal court for endangering the lives of those who have had their property seized under the new street cleanup rules. The plaintiffs are seeking replacement of all lost possessions and an end to the ordinance.

The lawsuit alleges that police have not only been removing couches and shopping carts from homeless encampments, but also tents, blankets, and medications. Los Angeles Community Action Network organizer Eric Ares tells KPCC that police are seizing items that are essential for survival on the streets, like rain tarps and even social security documents.

One plaintiff claims that a street cleanup happened in the time he went to get a cup of coffee. When he came back, his possessions were gone. While he was able to retrieve much of his property, one very important possession—his tent—was gone for good.

Worse yet, some homeless people jailed under the new ordinance allege in the suit that they were released into the winter cold with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Two of the plaintiffs claim that police endangered their lives upon release from jail. One of the plaintiffs says he was released in the middle of the night, when temperatures were in the 40s, without his medications or any protection from the cold. The other plaintiff, who suffers from arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure, was also released without medication and was subsequently hospitalized for pneumonia two days after her release.

The lawsuit cites the city's seeming preference to "address the visible presence of homeless people without actually reducing the number of residents on streets each night." Carol Sobel, lawyer for the plaintiffs, says the city's response to homelessness is the "definition of insanity," that it continues using the same "constitutional violations" against the homeless expecting different results. She claims the city is seizing property "in the name of cleaning up the city," turning homeless people into criminals and leaving them "without any lifeline" in the process.

Councilmember Gil Cedillo has echoed this frustration with the methods LA uses to handle homelessness—upon casting the lone opposing vote against the street cleanup ordinance last year, Cedillo told the LA Times "we spend $100 million on homelessness, and 85% of our response is law enforcement ... That tells us our strategy is not working."

City Hall is mum about the lawsuit for the moment. A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti says he has not yet seen the suit.