SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Salinas, California is using a unconstitutional, six-week-old ordinance to seize and destroy homeless people's property, seven homeless people say in a federal class action.
"One officer told me, 'You ain't getting shit back; anything here is gone and will be thrown away. If you do not vacate the park, you will be arrested,'" plaintiff Joseph Blains says in the Nov. 24 complaint.
Police and police dogs surrounded a homeless encampment and "told us to 'git,'" plaintiff William Silas said. "I asked for more time to gather my belongings. [The police] ignored my request. I lost the only picture I owned of my deceased mother."
The Salinas City Council on Oct. 13 approved a law prohibiting the placing of "bulky items" on public property, and allowing the items to be seized and destroyed with 24 hours notice.
But lead plaintiff Rita Acosta et al. say police often give no notice at all before taking their property and destroying it.
"Already, dozens [of] such sweeps have been carried out, depriving the city's growing ranks of homeless of the few meager possessions needed to survive: tents and other makeshift forms of shelter, clothing, bedding, carts, and other necessities such as food, medicines and personal hygiene items," the complaint states.
Salinas, pop. 156,000, is in Monterey County, about 100 miles south of San Francisco.
Acosta and the others say the city has targeted a longstanding, 1,700-person camp in Chinatown, where many homeless people depend on services, including food kitchens and mobile medical clinics.
"Hundreds of Chinatown's homeless will be unable to access the few services that are available in this centrally located area," the complaint states. "Thus, the city is placing the most vulnerable segment of the population more directly in harm's way than if the city were to simply leave the homeless alone."
Acosta, who lives in Chinatown, says the city seized her property last year - all of it, including family photos, her tent, mattress, bedding, clothes, a month's worth of food, and her identification and personal documents.
"The areas where homeless people set up encampments had become self-sustaining communities where neighbors looked after each other and their belongings," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs say the city's practice of fencing off areas after sweeping up homeless camps eliminates communities that once provided "a modicum of stability, safety and wellbeing through the self-governance of its residents."
The lawsuit cites the Ninth Circuit's 2013 ruling in Lavan v. City of Los Angeles, which upheld a temporary restraining order to block the seizure and destruction of homeless people's property.
The Ninth Circuit stated in Lavan: "The government may not take property like a thief in the night; rather it must announce its intentions and give the property owner a chance to argue against the taking."
The Lavan case shares striking similarities with Salinas, the plaintiffs say, as both cases involve "deficient or nonexistent notice" given before the city confiscates and destroys property.
The plaintiffs seek class certification, declaratory judgment and a restraining order and injunction against unreasonable seizure, due process violations, cruel and unusual punishment, conversion, trespass to chattels, violations of the First, Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and the California Constitution.
They are represented by Anthony Prince, in Berkeley.
Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Monday afternoon.
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