LOS ANGELES (CN) – Homeless residents in Los Angeles filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing city sanitation workers and police of violating their constitutional rights by seizing and destroying their personal belongings including tents, medications and other items despite courts blocking the sweeps.
Amid a homeless crisis and housing shortage, the lawsuit filed by seven individuals and two organizations challenges LA’s zoning code cited by officials during sweeps of homeless encampments.
In June, LA reported a 16% increase in the homeless population.
The 52-page federal lawsuit says most unhoused people throughout Los Angeles do not have access to storage space for their belongings and carry most their possessions with them on the street.
“In fact, for decades, the seizure and destruction of homeless people’s belongings has remained a consistent and often singular strategy deployed by the city to erase the visible signs of homelessness in Los Angeles,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint.
They are represented by Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the law firms Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman and Kirkland & Ellis.
Plaintiffs claim LA enforces a vague zoning code to take their belongings. The code, they say does not provide constitutional protections previous courts have said are necessary.
Previously, a lawsuit by homeless residents in LA’s Skid Row resulted in a ruling that the removal and immediate destruction of a person’s unattended property violates the Constitution. The ruling – which the Ninth Circuit upheld – applied citywide and led to LA amending its zoning law and implementing a process of notifying people before city employees remove items from the street.
But the plaintiffs say the city has not abided by its own process. Instead, using unannounced service calls the city’s public works, sanitation and police departments “routinely seize and destroy tents, sleeping bags, carts, clothing, medication, important documents, and other items that homeless residents need to survive on the streets,” according to the complaint.
Plaintiffs include Janet Garcia, who lives in a tent near the Metro Orange Line station in Van Nuys; Gladys Zepeda and her girlfriend Miriam Zamora, who were evicted from their home in February and now live in a tent in Koreatown; Ali El-Bey who lives on a busy corner in Koreatown; James Haugabrook, who has lived his entire life in South Los Angeles; Pete Diocson, Jr. who says sanitation workers destroyed his dog’s kennel and now he’s afraid she will escape; and Marquis Ashley, who lives around Harbor City.
Garcia says she makes a living as a house cleaner and has seen and all her supplies taken by sanitation workers on multiple occasions.
“Every time I lose my belongings, I have to start over. How am I supposed to get back up on my feet when they keep making me go back to square one?” Garcia said in a statement.
The plaintiffs seek a court finding that they have a right to be free from unreasonable seizures and to due process and that the ordinance denies them of those rights. They also want the court to find the ordinance void for vagueness.
“Discarding people’s belongings with arbitrary discretion and confusing rules harms their health and impairs their ability to work and find housing. The current practices and the law underlying them are unconstitutional,” their attorney Catherine Sweetser of Schonbrun Seplow said in a statement.
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday says that 82% of California voters say the homeless situation in the Golden State is a very serious problem and just 17% say the homeless are to blame. Much of the problem lies with the state itself, according to 67% of voters who say the problem is exacerbated by the housing shortage crisis.
Nearly three-quarters of voters polled support building more affordable housing, but are divided along party lines: 90% of Democrats support more affordable housing compared with 52% of Republican voters.