SLO seizes homeless property days after LA loses legal bid
August 12, 2013
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
San Luis Obispo calls the tents, bikes and personal belongings of homeless people “found property.” Workers for the company that gets $1,600 a day to seize and send the property to the landfill call it “homeless trash.”
The people whose belongings are taken call it “everything” – from items for their young children to the tents they sleep in, clothing, toiletries and even their mail.
San Luis Obispo continues to seize the property of homeless people even though courts have ruled against other California cities over the taking and destruction of that personal property.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept an appeal from Los Angeles over a district court injunction ordering the city to stop taking and destroying the property of homeless people.
The district court issued the order as part of a lawsuit filed by eight homeless people in Los Angeles over the seizure and destruction of their property. The homeless plaintiffs argued that their 4th Amendment rights had been violated when the city took the property.
It wasn’t the first time Los Angeles faced legal action over such seizures. The city has been faced with at least three other suits over unconstitutional seizures since the 1980s.
Los Angeles is not the only city to face legal action over such practices. In 2006, homeless plaintiffs sued Fresno for bulldozing their encampments. A U.S. district court ruled that the city’s actions violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Fresno paid $2.35 million to settle the case.
San Luis Obispo Assistant City Manager Michael Codron says the city is committed to complying with personal property laws.
“It is not the city’s policy to dispose of any found personal property or possessions except in accordance with legal requirements,” Codron wrote in an email.
On June 27, three days after the Supreme Court refused to accept the Los Angeles appeal, workers for Eco Solutions targeted a homeless encampment under the Marsh Street Bridge. Eco Solutions is the company that receives approximately $1,600 for its cleanup days aimed at the homeless.
The workers hauled away baby blankets and formula. Workers also confiscated and disposed of two baby strollers from the encampment. A CalCoastNews reporter witnessed the removal of the strollers.
The strollers appeared to be in good condition, but the crew hauled them to the Cold Canyon Landfill.
Eco Solutions employees said that if campers are present when crews arrive for an encampment cleanup, the crews tell those living in the camps to grab whatever they can quickly carry away. If no one is at the camp, as is often the case when the crews arrive, they load everything in a truck and haul it off to the landfill.
“We are just cleaning up homeless trash,” said an Eco Solutions employee who did not want to provide his name.
One homeless man told CalCoastNews that he returned to his campsite one day to find that a cleanup crew confiscated all of his belongings, including his mail.
Another man, Danny Braninburg, said in 2011, a crew confiscated all the belongings from a camp in which he lived for two years. At any given time, five to 30 other homeless individuals lived in the creek side camp behind the San Luis Obispo Elks Lodge. The belongings confiscated included tents, bicycles, an electric generator and CD players.
“It was my house,” Braninburg said. “I was going through surgery. I couldn’t move.”
Braninburg said the crew also disposed of the carpet he laid that stretched from a nearby trail to his home.
“There was nothing left there but dirt,” he said.
After losing his campsite, Braninburg tried living in his vehicle, but he received 17 illegal lodging tickets from the city, he said.
Another homeless San Luis Obispo resident, Billy Huerta, lost his belongings to a sweep under the bridge on Prado Road in 2012. Huerta returned to his campsite to find his clothes, sleeping bag, toiletries and the rest of his belongings missing.
“They took everything,” Huerta said. “You gotta start all over again.”
Other homeless individuals who have lost belongings to creek cleanups fear they will endure retaliation for sharing their experiences with the media.
A number of cities, including Los Angeles have used property seizures to deal with homeless people. As part of a downtown cleanup campaign, Los Angeles sanitation workers and police took and trashed property left temporarily by residents in the primarily homeless community of Skid Row. Much of the property taken came from shopping carts, cardboard boxes and mobile shelters built by charity groups for the homeless. The property had been left unattended by the homeless while getting meals, using restrooms, filling water jugs or receiving services from social services programs.
In 2011, eight homeless people sued Los Angeles for confiscating their property. A federal district court issued an injunction against city seizure of homeless property left unattended. The district court prohibited Los Angeles from confiscating homeless individuals’ possessions unless they posed immediate threats to public health or if they were evidence of a crime.
The 9th Circuit said that the property of the homeless people could not be taken just because they broke a Los Angeles ordinance against leaving property on the sidewalk.
“Violation of a City ordinance does not vitiate the Fourth Amendment’s protection of one’s property. Were it otherwise, the government could seize and destroy any illegally parked car or unlawfully unattended dog without implicating the Fourth Amendment,” the panel wrote in its decision to uphold the district court order.
Los Angeles also had to comply with rules that give the homeless notice that work crews would be in the area, so the homeless could ensure that no one took their possessions. That notice has to give the homeless an opportunity to be heard before their property is taken, the district court said. Los Angeles also had to follow existing rules to give the homeless 90 days to retrieve their belongings that were improperly taken.
Prior to encampment cleanups, San Luis Obispo city employees often provide warnings to those inhabiting the camps, city and Eco Solution staff said. Some homeless individuals, however, contend the crews have torn down their camps and confiscated their belongings without providing any advance notice.
Parks and Recreation staff and employees of Eco Solutions told CalCoastNews it is city policy to provide camp inhabitants one week’s notice of an upcoming cleanup, but that not everyone living in the camps receives the warnings.
Camping in city creeks and open spaces is illegal in San Luis Obispo, as is sleeping at night in vehicles. Many homeless individuals, however, risk tickets, fines and jail time by sleeping in or by creek beds, commonly under bridges.
San Luis Obispo pays Eco to tear down camps citywide and haul off belongings to the dump. Camps Eco Solutions crews dispose of include those under the Marsh Street, Madonna Road and Prado Road bridges. In the months of February through June 2013, Eco Solutions received contracts for four encampment cleanup days, according to city financial statements.
While San Luis Obispo has not faced a lawsuit for confiscation of property belonging to the homeless, the city did lose a lawsuit last year over its practice of ticketing people sleeping in their cars.