Denver Isn’t the Only City Seizing Homeless People’s Gear

Mother Jones – by Laura Smith

On Saturday, Denver’s mayor, Michael B. Hancock, announced that city police officers would be asked to stop seizing sleeping bags, blankets, tents, and other items that help homeless people keep warm in the winter. The announcement came after a video showing officers confiscating blankets in frigid weather provoked outcry. And while the announcement was a win for Denver’s homeless, Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, notes that the seizure or destruction of homeless people’s property is common practice in the United States. 

Belongings are often seized under anti-camping laws or laws that prohibit sleeping in public—part of a larger trend of what Foscarinis calls “the criminalization of homelessness.” Earlier this year, her organization released a study tracking the phenomenon in 187 cities. It found that one-third of cities prohibit camping citywide, an increase of nearly 70 percent over a decade ago. But many courts have ruled such practices unconstitutional. Here’s a rundown of what’s happening in a few key cities.

Los Angeles: In March, lawyers sued on behalf of four homeless people whose property was destroyed by the city. One plaintiff, Judy Coleman, was hospitalizedfor pneumonia after her tent and blanket were taken. The judge in the case issued a preliminary injunction requiring the city to stop seizing homeless people’s belongings during arrests or clean-ups. The order also prohibits the city from storing seized items in a manner that makes them difficult to reclaim—a common problem, according to the Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. A similar case from 2014 is in the process of being settled out of court.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles City Council approved a law limiting the storage of items in parks, alleys, and sidewalks to what will fit in a 60-gallon container. Under the law, homeless people may also be cited or arrested if they fail to take down their tents between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. An LAPD spokesman told me the department is no longer doing sweeps of homeless encampments. The current policy on seized possessions, he says, is to store the items, unless they are too wet or are deemed unsanitary—that determination is left to the officer’s discretion.

Denver: The mayor’s order only applies until April, when officers may resume seizures of bedding and camping gear. In the interim, police still intend to enforce the pubic camping ban—violators can face fines of up to $999. Back in August, a group called Denver Homeless Out Loud filed a class-action lawsuit arguing that the city’s sweeps are unconstitutional.

Seattle: The city’s regular raids on homeless camps have come under fire due to the loss of personal property and the city’s failure to give homeless residents proper notice. Seattle has been embroiled in an ongoing debate about how best to handle its sweeps, some of which have been halted by city civil rights monitors because the approved protocols were not followed.

San Francisco: Homeless sweeps are common in San Francisco. According to Mission Local‘s examination of the Department of Public Works records, the city only preserved 23 people’s seized belongings over a six-month period this year. On Tuesday, Bay Area civil rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation over the seizure of items such as stoves, tents, and bedding by Caltrans employees.

Honolulu: Though winter survival is less of a problem in Hawaii, Foscarinis points out that homeless people are also at risk in warm weather when their belongings are essential to keeping cool. In a survey of homeless residents by the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, nearly 60 percent reported losing personal identification, 40 percent lost tents, and 21 percent lost medicine in sweeps. The National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness report stated, “The city has been transparent about its goal of removing Honolulu’s homeless population from view” and has proposed to “relocate homeless people to a separate island that previously served as a garbage dump and former internment camp during WWII.”

5 thoughts on “Denver Isn’t the Only City Seizing Homeless People’s Gear

  1. When you remove the few things they have, it upends their survival routines, and does wonders to help kill them off, which is the hidden goal here.

    They may hook themselves up with a little Sterno stove to warm up food that they find, or arrange cardboard boxes to keep the wind from ripping through what’s left of their clothing collection, and these little things make their next day’s survival chores possible.

    Tear up this stuff, and they’re left wandering the streets again, with panhandling and theft as their only means of survival. Without a “camp” to build on, they go downhill quick.

    1. You made the right choice by NOT becoming one if your goal was to help people.

      Any help cops may occasionally provide people is incidental to the number of innocent lives they ruin by enforcing unjust laws (e.g., drug use and sales to adults, guns, prostitution) and, more often than not, by breaking laws that ought to be followed (especially laws intended to protect the rights of citizens and criminal suspects).

      If we really want to help our fellow man, we should prepare ourselves as thoroughly as possible to defend those who can’t defend themselves. We may someday witness an elderly person, a woman, a child, or a handicapped person being viciously brutalized by one or more pigs, and we may be the only ones who can stop it.

  2. “The current policy on seized possessions, he says, is to store the items, unless they are too wet or are deemed unsanitary—that determination is left to the officer’s discretion.”

    The scumbag (L.A.) pigs were ‘storing’ them in the nearest dumpster back in the 90s.

    I seriously doubt that anything has changed since then.

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