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Fight to End Salinas Homeless Sweeps Alive

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge denied as moot a request to stop the city of Salinas from sweeping homeless camps, but said she would consider a temporary restraining order in the future if needed.

Salinas, population 155,662, is the county seat of Monterey County and known for its large agricultural industry, and as the hometown of "The Grapes of Wrath" author John Steinbeck.

This past October, the city adopted an ordinance that would ostensibly keep the homeless from taking city property and to ensure that city grounds remain in "clean, sanitary and accessible condition."

But the ordinance also allows authorities to confiscate personal items of homeless people, and found a private contractor to decide which items should be stored or trashed. This led to a lawsuit by seven homeless people who say that for two years their personal property has been confiscated "and presumably destroyed" by city employees "as part of an ongoing practice targeting the homeless in the city," according to their complaint.

They sought a temporary restraining order barring the city from seizing, storing or destroying their personal effects. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh denied the request on procedural grounds this past November.

Undeterred, the plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction focusing on two aspects of the ordinance and accompanying resolution: the authorization to immediately seize and discard "bulky" items, and the city's refusal to store items "that smell, are stained with mud, or are broken, damaged or stripped of parts."

The plaintiffs said these aspects of Salinas' ordinance violate the Fourth and 14th Amendments and are unconstitutionally vague.

In January, Salinas agreed to not enforce the ordinance or remove the property of homeless people before March 3, the date of the hearing on the preliminary injunction, "absent an immediate and serious risk to public health and safety."

And last month, Salinas told Koh it had repealed the offending words "bulky items" and "smelly or damaged" from the ordinance, thus rendering the issue moot. Furthermore, Salinas said it replaced "bulky items" with a clear definition of what it considered large enough to confiscate - something too large to fit in a 96-gallon trash can.

On Feb. 29, Koh agreed the changes made the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction moot. But at a case management conference on Thursday, she established a March 7 deadline for plaintiffs' lawyer Anthony Prince to request a temporary restraining order.

In a telephone interview, Prince said a temporary restraining order is necessary to prevent Salinas from conducting sweeps in the Chinatown area of Salinas, home to an encampment of an estimated 300 homeless people.

"Their actions include seizures and in some cases destruction of personal property," Prince said. "The city is not only trying to drive homeless out in an unconstitutional manner, but they are trying to make it clear to others they are not welcome."

He added, "We disagree and are disappointed with the judge's decision. Mootness results not just when there is a change of words or terminology, but when something is substantively different."

However, Prince will ask for a restraining order by Koh's deadline. For her part, Koh said she is trying to "keep the case moving forward."

The city will have until March 11 to file their opposition, and a hearing is scheduled for March 17.

Vincent P. Hurley, co-counsel for the city of Salinas, told Koh the city will move to lawfully enforce its recently enacted ordinance.

Prince repeatedly argued that the city is using the health and safety aspect of the new ordinance as a pretext to conduct a sweep of the camp and to destroy the property of homeless people as a deterrent to others living in the city.

"They are making a blanket statement about the entire area," Prince said. "It's a pretext to avert the due-process requirements."

Hurley said there had been a fire in the camp recently, and that damaged items remain that pose a threat and need to be removed.

Prince also cited the recent statement of interest the U.S. Department of Justice filed in the Bell v. Boise case as justification for his case. There, Justice Department lawyers argued that cities that pass ordinances to outlaw sleeping or lying down in public spaces without providing temporary housing are violating the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Eighth Amendment.

While that case has yet to be decided, Prince believes the statement lends weight to his arguments.

After the hearing, Prince said he believes he adequately convinced the judge that his clients are in danger of imminent harm.

The city declined to comment on the case.

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