3,000 Denver Homeless Get Class Certification for Sweeps

DENVER (CN) — A federal judge granted a groundbreaking class certification for all homeless Denver citizens who claim the city wrongfully seized or destroyed their property.

The Denver Homeless Out Loud, a nonprofit, wrote on its website that the Thursday ruling established “one of the largest class actions of poor and dispossessed persons in U.S. history,” with at least 3,000 homeless people in the class.

The Aug. 25, 2016, lawsuit from lead plaintiff Raymond Lyall claims the City of Denver, its police force, the Department of Public Works and Denver County Jail work-release inmates seized and destroyed blankets, tents, and sentimental items in mass “homeless sweeps” meant to push the homeless out of the city.

The sweeps started after the City Council passed an urban camping ban in May 2012, which prohibited homeless people from sleeping in city parks, on sidewalks, and along the South Platte River.

The original six homeless plaintiffs said in the complaint that the sweeps could “only be described as cruel.”

“These sweeps that have been ratified and implemented by defendants not only violate plaintiffs’ rights, but our concept of a just society,” according to the complaint.

Denver filed a response in October 2016, saying the class was not adequately defined and should not be certified.

“Plaintiffs’ proposed class definition is impermissibly broad, vague, and indefinite,”  the response said. “It does not define a particular group, harmed at a particular time and location, in a particular way. Instead, contending that Denver has a policy of ‘seizing and summarily destroying’ the property of homeless people in Denver, plaintiffs seek to certify a class that would contain every person now homeless in Denver and anyone who may in future become homeless, without any objective criteria to identify the class members whose personal belongings have been or will be taken by Denver employees.”

But U.S. District Judge William Martinez found that the class could prevail on its claims.

“Denver may succeed in proving that all of the alleged sweeps were different and that no homeless person’s belongings were confiscated and discarded in an unconstitutional manner,” the April 27 order says.

“But plaintiffs claim to the contrary, and a number of them have submitted declarations attesting that they personally witnessed the conduct that they allege.”

Martinez did not buy the city’s argument that the class numbers are insufficient for certification.

“The homeless population in Denver is likewise ‘shifting,’ and the Court is satisfied that it exists in sufficient numbers to reasonably infer that a sufficiently numerous subset have been and will be exposed to enforcement of the camping ban in a way that plaintiffs claim is unconstitutional,” the order states.

The plaintiffs estimate that of the 5,500 homeless people in the Denver Metro area, at least 3,000 have been mistreated during the sweeps.

Martinez, however, denied the plaintiffs’ proposed formula to determine each class member’s damages. While the plaintiffs proposed a means of calculating the average loss experienced by each member through the seizure of belongings, the destruction of priceless items and mental and emotional suffering, Martinez said the court could not reduce the damages “to some sort of average per class member,” as it would “depriv(e) Denver of the opportunity to challenge any particular class member’s claim.”

The class is represented by Jason Flores-Williams of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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