LOS ANGELES (CN) - As LA's homeless population mushrooms thanks to a decline in affordable housing and gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, police are increasingly criminalizing homelessness by arresting homeless people for nonviolent quality-of-life crimes and destroying their belongings, several homeless people and their advocates claim in Federal Court.
Plaintiffs' attorney Shayla Myers told Courthouse News that police treatment of the homeless is "unbelievable and unfortunate."
"We brought this suit to prevent the city from engaging in a practice of unlawfully seizing and destroying homeless people's property. It's an ongoing issue that is only increasing in frequency, which is why we brought the case," she said.
Federal courts and the Ninth Circuit have previously ruled that seizing and destroying homeless people's property is unconstitutional and unacceptable because they still have private property rights even though they do not have homes, Myers said.
"We don't believe there is any justification that warrants the wholesale destruction of homeless people's property. These are blankets, medications, tents, even walkers. Being homeless is hard on the feet and legs. Without a walker, people who need them have no way to get their property back," she said.
Targeting the homeless is part of an ongoing campaign to make them invisible, she said.
"When a homeless person is living in a tent on the street, we see them. When they are arrested and their tent is destroyed, we can't see them. It's a devastating issue for the homeless people in Los Angeles."
Though Myers hopes the city will stop this discrimination without court intervention, the only way that will happen is if the LAPD and other agencies involved make substantial policy changes.
"Los Angeles has the second largest unhoused population in the nation, but the largest unsheltered community by far," the plaintiffs say in their 33-page complaint.
They continue: "According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) 2015 count, the number of individuals living on the streets of the city in the last two years has increased by approximately 12 percent, as wages stagnated, rents increased dramatically and the affordable housing stock declined in the face of gentrification in formerly low-income neighborhoods across Los Angeles. This translates to almost 5,000 additional individuals, nearly all of whom are living in tents, various make-shift shelters and in their vehicles throughout the city."
Of the approximately 44,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles County, around 25,000 of them live in the city of Los Angeles - and thousands more are becoming homeless each month.
Though the city has taken strides to help families and veterans attain housing, there is still a 72 percent deficit between demand for shelter and shelter availability. Even building 10,000 low-low income housing units over the next five years would be insufficient to address the city's "chronic shortage of affordable housing," according to the complaint.
Though the city is obligated to build affordable housing for Skid Row residents under the 2007 settlement in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, which also suspended an ordinance that banned sitting, lying or sleeping on the sidewalk at night, the ban is still technically in effect until the city builds 1,250 housing units - which, when the loss of housing units is taken into account, the city is far from achieving, the plaintiffs say.
Promises by city officials to commit $100 million each year for housing and other services for the homeless are largely empty because the city claims it has no money to fund these initiatives, according to the complaint.
"In the meantime, the city has begun a renewed vigorous and cruel enforcement of so-called 'quality of life' offenses against the homeless, charging many with misdemeanor offenses, jailing them for quality-of-life offenses, and seizing and destroying their property," though these practices have been previously struck down by the courts as unlawful, the complaint states.
Nevertheless, the plaintiffs say, the city continues criminalizing the homeless. Ninety percent of the $87 to $100 million it spent in 2015 to respond to homelessness was used by the LAPD to enforce laws against them, the complaint states, citing a report issued by city's chief administrative officer.
While the police were previously content to simply destroy homeless people's belongings, they have escalated their tactics to arresting people for nonviolent quality-of life-crimes such as lying or sitting on the sidewalk after dark and owning a shopping cart branded with the name of a private business, the plaintiffs say.
Though the city has a policy classifying these crimes as infractions, meaning they cannot be the basis for arrest, since 2015 the LAPD has implemented a custom of ignoring this policy in favor of arresting homeless people on Skid Row and destroying their property, according to the complaint.
Following a homeless person's arrest for a quality-of-life infraction, the police typically call the Bureau of Sanitation and have a trash truck or pickup truck sent to the scene to haul away whatever is cordoned off inside the police tape, which can sometimes clear an entire block, the complaint states.
The plaintiffs claim that city workers treat people's belongings like de facto garbage, ripping open tents with knives, crushing the poles, and throwing away shoes, clothes, blankets, and even medications, walkers, and personal documents.
Officers do not allow arrestees to pack up their property before they are taken to booking, even if all their belongings are kept in a single backpack - a truly troubling trend, the plaintiffs say, considering that the City Attorney's Office has proposed allowing homeless people to keep one backpack to store their essential personal items.
Any property that is not simply thrown away is bagged and tagged, but officers do not ensure that each bag holds a single person's property. So someone whose belongings have been commingled with another's has no way to get it back, the complaint states.
Worse still, the LAPD has several places where it stores seized property and people "are left to guess where their property has been stored and where it can be reclaimed," the plaintiffs say. "Because adequate post-deprivation notice is not provided at the location of the seizure, they must often walk from location to location, trying to search out what city employees did with their property."
The unlawful seizure and destruction of homeless people's property exposes them to serious health and safety risks, especially during winter when temperatures routinely dip below 50 degrees at night. When wind chill and rain are taken into account, unsheltered people are at extreme risk developing hypothermia, other exposure-related illnesses and death, according to the complaint.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer did not immediately return emailed comment requests sent Tuesday afternoon.
The plaintiffs seek an injunction barring the defendants from arresting homeless people and destroying their property; a declaration that the defendants' conduct violates their civil rights; an order for the defendants to replace seized blankets, tents, tarps, clothes, medications, and personal documents; and an order to stop commingling people's property when it is seized.
Cangress, also known as Los Angeles Community Action Network, or LA CAN, is a grassroots organization for residents of Skid Row that has been operating since 1999. Its over 800 members work to protect the rights of the homeless and "address systemic poverty and oppression in the community," according to the complaint.
Founded in 1970, Los Angeles Catholic Workers runs a free soup kitchen and offers hospice care for the homeless at a facility on Skid Row nicknamed the "Hippie Kitchen." It also helps people get access to dental care, over-the-counter prescriptions, and personal toiletry items, and buys shopping carts for them to store their belongings, the complaint states.
The individual plaintiffs have first-hand experience with the LAPD's draconian treatment of the homeless population.
Carl Mitchell, 62, has several lived on Skid Row for several years. Last December, he says, he was pushing two shopping carts he got from the Hippie Kitchen when an officer stopped him and asked him if a third cart was his. Though he said no, the officer arrested him and ordered all his belongings, including a backpack with his medication and personal papers, tossed into a trash truck.
When he was released the temperature was in the low 40s, and he was forced to sleep on the sidewalk with nothing but a blanket he'd found, his shoelaces and his belt, according to the complaint.
Michael Escobedo, who is legally blind and has a service dog, says police officers destroyed his tent in a clean-up sweep around Christmas Eve 2015. Though he was able to save a few personal items, he had to sleep under a tarp for months, which did not adequately protect him, his dog, or his personal property from the rain and cold.
Salvador Roque claims he was arrested after officers saw him sweeping the doorway where he slept at night. He was not given a property receipt upon his release, and so far has not been able to get his depression medication, blankets, money, and documents related to his petition to obtain Social Security disability benefits, according to the complaint.
Judy Coleman says in the complaint that she moved her property from one location to another at an officer's command, and another officer promptly accused her of owning a shopping cart nearby and arrested her. Though she suffers from severe arthritis, diabetes, and respiratory problems, the officers refused to let her take her medication and held her for two days without medical treatment. Since she had no blanket or tent to protect her from exposure after her release, she was hospitalized with pneumonia a few days later.