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LA settles homeless property rights case

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The decision could make it hard for police to seize items on Skid Row

LA To Ask Supreme Court For Right To Remove Homeless’ Belongings From Streets
More than 2,000 people live without shelter in Downtown.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In a rare non-unanimous decision, the Los Angeles City Council voted 10-2 Wednesday to settle a court case with broad implications for the property rights of homeless residents.

The terms of the agreement have not been released, but by settling the lawsuit, an injunction issued in 2016 that prevents police and city workers from confiscating without notice the possessions of homeless residents in the Skid Row area will remain in place.

The decision was applauded by homeless advocates, but decried by Downtown residents and business groups, who argued that “legal limits” on the storage of items on sidewalks are necessary to prevent public health and access issues in the neighborhood, where more than 2,000 people live without shelter.

“The city must take a stand for health, safety, and decency,” said Carol Schatz, former president of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. “This is not a solution to our homeless problem, but will only worsen the situation and encourage more dangerous street behavior.”

The agreement approved by the council Thursday settles a three-year-old lawsuit, Mitchell versus city of Los Angeles, filed by four homeless residents who claimed that police officers had confiscated and destroyed their personal possessions, including blankets, tents, and medication.

In April 2016, U.S. District Judge James Otero ordered the city to stop seizing items without evidence “that it is abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health/safety, is evidence of a crime, or is contraband.”

The injunction came less than a month after Los Angeles lawmakers passed a measure that allows homeless residents to keep certain items on the sidewalk—as long as they fit into a 60-gallon garbage bin.

In a letter to the City Council, Central City Association president Jessica Lall argued that a settlement in the Mitchell case could complicate efforts to enforce this policy both in Downtown LA and elsewhere.

“We believe that the injunction has created serious public health implications,” wrote Lall, citing Downtown LA’s recent typhus outbreak. “Applying a reasonable limit on personal goods will help create healthier conditions while still providing individuals with the Constitution’s protections.”

But homeless advocates argued that the settlement would protect the rights of residents with few places other than the sidewalk to store their belongings.

“Let’s be clear, encampments don’t come because of constitutional rights—encampments come because of a lack of housing and a lack of affordability that exists in Los Angeles,” said Steve Diaz, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network.