Economy

Los Angeles May Stop Letting Police Steal Homeless People’s Belongings

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

Homeless people's tents lining the streets in downtown Los Angeles

Judy Coleman has to do a lot to survive day-to-day. She lives on the streets of Los Angeles, which means she doesn’t have stable shelter from cold nights. She also suffers from multiple health conditions, including diabetes, severe arthritis, high blood pressure, and respiratory problems, all of which require taking medications and using medical equipment such as a walker and a monitor to check her blood sugar levels.

But in February, the city police arrested her after accusing her of owning an illegal shopping cart she contends wasn’t even hers. She says she asked the police to let her get her medication and use her walker, but the officers refused, taking her to a jail where she was held for two days. She was released on a Sunday without her medications or other personal property, and she says could only claim her things, described as “multiple” bags and put in an off-site storage facility, on Tuesday. Even in the city, overnight temperatures can dip below the point at which people are in danger of getting hypothermia. A few days after she was released, she developed pneumonia and was hospitalized after sleeping outside without a tent or a blanket.

She still hasn’t been able to get her things back; the storage facility has short hours and is poorly staffed. Meanwhile, as of March 14, she had yet to be formally charged.

Coleman is part of a lawsuit brought against the city of Los Angeles by three other homeless residents and legal organizations alleging the city has “begun a renewed vigorous and cruel enforcement of so-called ‘quality of life’ offenses against the homeless,” charging them with misdemeanors rather than infractions, jailing them, and seizing and destroying their property. That violates their constitutional rights, the lawsuit alleges.

Now the city council is considering revising the ordinance that allows police to sweep homeless encampments left on city streets overnight. The change would allow people to keep some of their personal possessions. The council’s committee on homelessness has already voted to amend it to allow the homeless to keep possessions that fit in a 60-gallon container if the city can’t provide nearby storage space or offer transportation to a storage area. Unattended property and anything that doesn’t fit in a container could still be impounded.

A full council vote could come Friday, although it would still leave in place the ability for police to clear homeless encampments from the sidewalks.

The lawsuit says the city often sweeps up other people’s property when targeting and arresting a different individual, claiming, “a single arrest can lead to the clearing of an entire City block.” The property is also “treated as if it is presumptively trash,” even if it constitutes medications, necessities, and important documents. This strips the homeless of their constitutional rights, the complaint argues, because the city doesn’t take any “steps to address the most fundamental needs of homeless persons for a safe environment” and it leaves them “in the cold, literally.”

The city has been successfully sued three times before and been ordered to stop seizing homeless people’s personal property, according to the groups’ complaint. The most recent case was in 2011, when the U.S. District Court granted an injunction that prohibited the city from seizing property that isn’t abandoned, the scene of a crime, or a public hazard and destroying it without first holding it for 90 days so someone can claim it. A 2007 settlement also mandates that nighttime enforcement of an ordinance against sitting or lying down on sidewalks be halted until 1,250 more units of housing are created, a requirement the city has yet to meet, according to the complaint.

At the end of last year, the city took an unprecedented step and declared the situation facing its homeless population an emergency. There were about 17,700 people living without shelter at the last count, up from less than 15,000 in 2013. At the time of the emergency declaration, the city council proposed spending $100 million on alleviating the situation and Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) called for an additional $13 million plus spending $100 million each year to help the homeless move into housing, as well as to extend shelter availability. It’s since approved a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness that will cost $1.85 billion, although it hasn’t outlined where it will get that money.

But the lawsuit alleges that the city “has continued to allocate nearly the bulk of its current resources directed to addressing homelessness to target homeless communities as criminals.” One report issued last year found that 90 percent of the money went to the police to enforce ordinances that criminalize the homeless.

Los Angeles has also come under fire for confiscating and destroying tiny houses that had been built and donated to the homeless through an online funding campaign. Those particular actions drew a protest of about 75 people on Friday on the steps of city hall.