LOS ANGELES – In the spring of 2011, a Federal District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the city from seizing homeless people’s property unless it was abandoned, contraband, evidence of a crime or an immediate threat to public health or safety, and from destroying it unless it posed a threat.
The City appealed that injunction, arguing basically that homeless people simply did not have the constitutional right to property.
In a 2-1 ruling in early September, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the original injunction, rejecting the City’s seemingly illogical argument that “the unattended property of homeless persons is uniquely beyond the reach of the Constitution.”
This decision represented a significant court victory for Skid Row residents – and other poor and homeless people across the country – that has been long in coming. LA CAN member Sean Gregory stated, “It’s a good thing the Courts are in our favor on this particular matter. Now if we could get LAPD and the ‘red shirts’ to get on board we could all start focusing more on the housing issue.”
Since the 1980s, local residents and organizers, members of the Hippie Kitchen/Catholic Worker, and civil rights attorneys such as Carol Sobel have been fighting to protect the personal property of homeless residents from the Los Angeles Police Department, City “clean-up crews”, and their agents at the Central City East Association.
The straw that eventually broke the camel’s back was in early 2011 when Senior Lead Officer Dean Joseph confiscated and destroyed the personal property of homeless residents who were living out of EDARs (“Everybody Deserves a Roof” mobile tents that had been distributed to residents by former Mayor Richard Riordan).
After Officer Joseph told four residents to move their EDARs to Winston Street from San Julian Street, the City almost immediately launched the “clean up crew” to Winston Street and seized and destroyed their EDARs and everything in them – scooped up, smashed and thrown in a dump truck in a matter of minutes.
LA CAN’s Community Watch team, which is comprised of trained residents who monitor police activity and prevent civil rights violations, responded to this egregious destruction of people’s homes and lives and began doing further outreach to document the coordinated efforts of LAPD and the City’s street services workers. Eventually eight residents, represented by Carol Sobel, agreed to join LA CAN and be plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the City’s practices.
A temporary restraining order against the City was first issued by Judge Philip Gutierrez in April 2011, followed by the preliminary injunction in June that ordered the City and its agents to stop: 1) seizing property absent an objectively reasonable belief that it is abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime, or contraband; and 2) absent an immediate threat to public health or safety, destruction of said seized property without maintaining it in a secure location for a period of no less than 90 days.
We had won!!! But hold it – don’t celebrate yet, because when poor folks get a victory, the City often responds with more criminalization.
Instead of honoring the preliminary injunction, continuing to clean the streets without violating people’s property rights, and focusing police work on serious crime, the City appealed the court’s decision and almost entirely stopped cleaning Skid Row streets.
The City’s efforts to appeal did not sit well with many residents, including a homeless resident named James, who said, “Can’t nobody in City Hall tell me they love or respect the homeless. The City hates me so much they appealed to the 9th circuit court just so they can take my only possessions.”
Following the appeal filing, the City, LAPD and their supporters at the Central City East Association launched a media blitz that blamed the injunction for the trash and public health problems in Skid Row, when in reality the City created a public health crisis through its refusal to pick up trash or engage in street cleaning which could have been easily done under the injunction’s parameters.
The media portrayal also completely ignored the fact that the large majority of homeless residents pack up their belongings neatly at 6 a.m. each day, as LAPD rolls through the neighborhood waking people up on their loudspeakers. While there were some public health issues due to the City abandoning its street cleaning duties, the neighborhood was not in the state of being completely overrun by property and trash that the City and LAPD continued to portray.
Following the media blitz focused on the incredibly exaggerated description of public health issues, the City requested LA County Department of Public Health to assess public health problems in Skid Row.
Instead of blaming residents or the injunction for public health issues as the City had done, the County’s report identified actions for the City to correct public health issues that mirrored exactly what residents had been asking for over the past several years.
These actions included regular street cleaning, sufficient trash cans, more 24/7 public restrooms with soap and other needed supplies, and vermin control efforts.
The City did engage in street cleaning efforts following the County’s report and, while certainly the media circus and haz-mat suits were unnecessary, the street cleaning itself was much needed and generally respected residents’ rights throughout the process
However, there were also contradictions between the efforts of the street cleaners, led by Fire Department Assistant Chief Butler, and LAPD, which told residents they couldn’t return to certain streets and engaged in other criminalization efforts to remove certain encampments. LA CAN members and the Community Watch teams are still working to resolve these issues.
Yet, despite the City’s resources being used for legal actions, a media blitz and other efforts to blame the injunction for public health problems that can be easily solved within the parameters of the court ruling, the City did not win their appeal. Their ongoing argument and policies that attempt to strip homeless people of their rights simply did not hold up in federal court.
In fact, the court’s ruling stated:
“This appeal does not concern the power of the federal courts to constrain municipal governments from addressing the deep and pressing problem of mass homelessness or to otherwise fulfill their obligations to maintain public health and safety. In fact, this court would urge Los Angeles to do more to resolve that problem and to fulfill that obligation. Nor does this appeal concern any purported right to use public sidewalks as personal storage facilities. The City has instead asked us to declare that the unattended property of homeless persons is uniquely beyond the reach of the Constitution, so that the government may seize and destroy with impunity the worldly possessions of a vulnerable group in our society. Because even the most basic reading of our Constitution prohibits such a result, the City’s appeal is DENIED.”
LA CAN will continue to work to ensure people’s property is protected — and that our streets and sidewalks are clean and safe.
The City can no longer just rob us of our property, but we have to learn our rights and exercise them together to be sure the law is upheld and our community gets the same services as all others.
The Community Connection is a street newspaper and a member of the North American Street Newspaper Association and the International Network of Street Papers. The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) is a membership organization comprised of low-income, homeless and formerly homeless residents living in Downtown and South Los Angeles, and surrounding communities.