DENVER (CN) — A federal class action accuses Denver of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on the homeless in police sweeps that not only roust them from camps but destroy their tents, blankets and few possessions.
“It is difficult to imagine what it must feel like to be already homeless and suffering, then be forced to watch as everything you own in the world is thrown into a dump truck while you are afforded no means to contest the seizure and destruction of your property,” lead plaintiff Raymond Lyall says in the Aug. 25 lawsuit.
The City Council prohibited urban camping in May 2012 by 9-4 vote. It banned sleeping in public spaces, forcing the homeless out of city parks, public sidewalks and areas around the South Platte River.
In the repeated sweeps, Denver police have seized and destroyed tents, sleeping bags, blankets and other possessions. Sometimes police used Denver County inmates to assist in the seizures.
“Plaintiffs are often ordered to stand by as their belongings are thrown into defendant Department of Public Works’ dump trucks by not only DPW workers, but inmates from county jail,” Lyall and eight co-plaintiffs say.
They add: “While perhaps not legally cognizable, there is something ugly about using poor people against poor people in this manner, i.e. those caught in mass incarceration to destroy the property of the destitute.”
The city intended its ordinance to send people from scattered encampments into homeless shelters. But according to an ACLU study, there are nine homeless people for every four shelter spaces in Denver.
City representatives did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
The homeless plaintiffs’ attorney Jason Flores-Williams compares the city policy to the heartlessness detailed in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
“The homeless sweeps have been something out of 1930’s Depression era America, where the homeless and displaced have been consistently harassed, detained, arrested, deprived of their rights and property with no concern for substantive and procedural safeguards,” the complaint states.
“One of the main statements repeated over again and again by police officers during these sweeps has been: ‘If you people would just leave Denver, all of this would stop.'”
The plaintiffs seek class certification, a restraining order and injunction, return of their property if it still exists, and punitive damages for violations of due process, unconstitutional search and seizure, and cruel and unusual punishment.
Flores-Williams did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
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