DENVER (CN) – Imagine it is 3 a.m. and you’ve finally fallen asleep when an authoritative voice orders you out of your tent. It’s a police officer who says it’s time to scram and he’s going to clear out whatever you can’t carry.
For 5,000 homeless class members who have had property confiscated by the City and County of Denver, this is a reality of living on the street, not a legal hypothetical.
“There’s a difference between what’s on the street and what’s in a lawyer’s head,” said civil rights attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who helped several homeless people sue the city in 2016. He met with two dozen class members Wednesday at the Denver Central Library downtown to discuss the settlement proposed by city attorneys in federal court.
Whether the settlement works, whether it actually improves the lives of people living on the street, depends on two things: individuals knowing their rights and enforcing them.
“I’m going to summarize the 20-page settlement in two sentences,” said Therese Howard, an activist with Denver Homeless Out Loud. “Who here has had any sort of property taken by the City of Denver? That’s what this is about. They can’t just take our stuff and this is how you retrieve it if they do.”
Denver struck the deal in February, ending the lawsuit spurred by a police officer’s filling a garbage truck on a cold December day in 2015 with medicines, tents and blankets belonging to people who were sleeping outside a shelter.
The lawsuit filed by lead plaintiff Raymond Lyall in August 2016 alleged that Denver’s enforcement of a 2012 urban camping ban sanctioned unlawful searches and seizures, depriving thousands of homeless of their property without adequate notice or due process.
In turn, the city claimed the sweeps were made in response to local complaints about unsafe and unsanitary parks, and that homeless encampments allowed for “violent crime against the female homeless population, open drug dealing and other safety issues.”
As per the settlement agreement, the city must offer between two and seven days notice before confiscating personal property, depending on the size of the encampment being cleared. Additionally, city personnel must give written instructions on where and when property can be picked up, hold property for up to 60 days, and launch an online database to help people locate missing effects.
The rules ensure that Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searched and seizure are protected whether or not an individual has an address.
Denver also vowed to expand services for the homeless, including maintaining portable toilets in public parks and installing 200 lockers downtown.
Many class members remain skeptical that the city is going to hold up its end of the deal.
Flores-Williams is helping them prepare for city violations. He encourages anyone whose property is taken without notice to document the incident, either on a cell phone camera or immediately afterword in writing.
“Your rights don’t mean anything if you don’t know what they are. Say: you are violating my agreement with the city of Denver and my attorney told me to document this,” Flores-Williams said.
Class members additionally have until Aug. 30 to submit feedback or request to speak in federal court. According to a notice distributed among class members, “if the court approves the settlement you will be able to enforce the settlement but cannot then contest the settlement and will not be able to sue in the same way as the legal issues concerned in this settlement.”
U.S. District Judge William Martinez is likely to rule on the settlement agreement during a Sept. 20 hearing.
Because the settlement agreement only applies to property, it does not grant anyone the right to sleep or rest anywhere—an issue that Denver Homeless Out Loud will continue to champion. The statehouse defeated an attempt to encode a homeless bill of rights into law earlier this year and Denverites voted to keep the city’s urban camping ban in May.
As Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is sworn into office on Monday for his final term and announces his next 100 days of action, Howard said Denver Homeless Out Loud will be there, making sure they are seen as citizens of the Mile High City.