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Homeless advocates challenge constitutionality of sweeps, seizures

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Attorneys say the city is destroying property that homeless residents “need to survive on the streets”

In this May 30, 2019 file photo, tents housing homeless line a street in Downtown Los Angeles.

Janet Garcia, who earns money cleaning houses, lives in a tent near the Metro Orange Line in Van Nuys. One morning in January, while she was away from her tent getting ready for work, city sanitation crews dumped her belongings—including bike repair tools, a vacuum and cleaning supplies, and her tent—into a garbage truck.

That’s one anecdote spelled out in a civil rights case filed today in federal court on behalf of Garcia and six other homeless residents of Los Angeles, challenging the constitutionality of the city’s sweeps and seizures of encampments.

“How am I supposed to get back up on my feet when they keep making me go back to square one?” Garcia said in a statement released by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, one of three organizations that filed the suit.

The lawsuit targets a city law, known as 56.11, that limits the size of items homeless residents can carry with them and store in public areas to what can fit in a 60-gallon container. The Legal Aid Foundation charges that the law violates fourth amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The seizure of an item based solely on the size of the item, without a warrant or probable cause, is unreasonable and contrary to the Fourth Amendment,” the lawsuit says.

In a statement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said finding “a better way forward” should entail discussions with the city—not lawsuits.

“We have to stop the decades-long cycle of hoping courtrooms will solve our homelessness crisis and our public health challenges,” he said. “This dynamic has only resulted in the deterioration of conditions on the streets, even as more housing units and shelter beds are being built.”

In the fourth quarter of last year, city crews tasked with enforcing 56.11 have visited more than 2,000 encampments and discarded more than 435 tons of “debris,” while placing fewer than 160 bags of belongings in storage, according to the Legal Aid Foundation.

In many cases, the foundation says, sanitation workers and police officers are confiscating items that homeless residents “need to survive on the streets.”

When it adopted the law in 2016, the City Council said it was necessary to balance the needs of a growing homeless population with the rights of “public at large to access clean and sanitary public areas.”

Officials with the city’s sanitation department, however, have acknowledged that LA’s approach to encampment cleanups hasn’t been effective.

Sanitation teams, sometimes accompanied by police officers, have “inadvertently set people back on their pathway to housing” by confiscating and disposing of valuables and personal items, according to a June report from the department.

Last month, Garcetti announced a new strategy for cleaning up homeless encampments centered on “services, not law enforcement.” He said crews would deploy mobile hygiene centers and would be trained to work with homeless residents and connect them with necessary services.

The mayor did not say how the new strategy would affect enforcement of 56.11. But in June, he did tell reporters that city officials are working with homeless advocates to regulate the storage of bulky items citywide following a legal settlement last month in which the city agreed to stop seizing items in the Skid Row area for the next three years.

On January 29, city crews gave residents living in Garcia’s camp in the San Fernando Valley 15 minutes to pack up their belongings, according to the new lawsuit.

No advanced notices had been posted in the area, and people “who happened to be gone in this narrow 15-minute window, like Ms. Garcia, had no opportunity to pack up their belongings,” the suit says.

It’s not just a lack of warning. In many cases, the Legal Aid Foundation says the city frequently does not disclose that a “rapid response” cleanup took place; many residents return to their camps to “discover that everything they own is gone.”

“The city has announced some changes to the way the city responds to homeless encampments, but to date, there has been no movement by the Los Angeles City Council to address the constitutionality of 56.11,” the Legal Aid Foundation said in a statement today.