LOS ANGELES — Advocates for the homeless said that even as pledges are being made at City Hall to help them, police and other city employees continue to seize and destroy their belongings and falsely arrest them.
Eric Ares, a community organizer with Cangress, which is associated with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said there has been “a huge up-tick, on a daily basis,” of enforcement during the last two months that includes the seizure and destruction of property belonging to the homeless, such as medication, tents, tarps and blankets.
Ares said this increased enforcement activity is “particularly cruel” given statements being made by city leaders that they plan to put aside $100 million to help the homeless, and the recent adoption of a comprehensive plan to provide housing and services to the homeless.
“As you’re creating this long-term plan for housing, you have to stop giving tickets to people for being poor. Instead, enforcement is being increased for violations such as having a tent up at the wrong hour,” Ares told City News Service March 15.
Cangress is one of two groups that joined four homeless individuals last week to file a lawsuit against the city, alleging enforcement sweeps of homeless encampments that have led to false arrests and property seizures without due process. The Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which operates a soup kitchen known as the “Hippie Kitchen,” is the other group in the case.
Their lawsuit alleges the city continues to treat homeless individuals in a way that has already been deemed by the court as unconstitutional.
“In addition to criminalizing homelessness with laws and actions the court has held to be unconstitutional, the city has also embarked on an unconstitutional campaign to seize homeless people’s property and to remove homeless individuals from the public sidewalks. The city has persisted with this approach despite repeatedly being rebuked by the courts,” the lawsuit said.
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said it is reviewing the lawsuit and offered no further comment.
The lawsuit alleges that since at least February, Los Angeles city crews known as the East Side Detail and RESET “have been assigned a deployment of trash trucks from the Department of Sanitation and Street Services, which are now present in Skid Row every day.”
The crews often show up with a “trash truck, a flatbed pickup truck, and/or a skiploader,” according to the lawsuit.
When someone is arrested, police and city crews use police tape to close off a part of the sidewalk, sometimes sequestering property that belongs to other people, and not the person arrested.
“LAPD officers and city workers often use this opportunity to seize and destroy property other than the property that belongs to the arrestee,” the lawsuit said.
“LAPD officers instruct city personnel to investigate property that does not belong to the arrestee; a single arrest can lead to the clearing of an entire city block.”
In these sweeps, personal property is “treated as if it is presumptively trash,” according to the lawsuit.
“The workers use knives to rip open tents, destroying them in the process,” the lawsuit said. “They crush the tent poles and items in the tent. When Bureau of Sanitation responds to a call from the LAPD regarding an arrestee’s property, they seize and dispose of nearly all of the property, including tents, blankets, shoes, clothing and often medications, medical assistance equipment such as walkers, diabetes testing machines and nebulizers, personal documents and other critical items.
“Items that the … Bureau of Sanitation determines should be thrown away are shoveled or thrown in a Department of Sanitation trash truck for immediate disposal.”
People who are arrested are also not given a chance to “pack up their belongings or to identify items that are critically important, like identification cards, medications or family photos” even when they can be put into a portable backpack that can be transported with them to be stored while they are in custody, the lawsuit said.
People whose items are confiscated along with those of the arrestee cannot retrieve them with help from the person who was arrested, the lawsuit said.
Meanwhile, anyone trying to retrieve their belongings after being released from custody are supposed to be given an inventory of the items, but often the descriptions are too vague for the person to know what was kept and tossed away, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also details alleged cases of improper arrests, including one that occurred when someone was cited for possession of a stolen shopping cart that did not actually belong to him.
In one example, a homeless individual named Carl Mitchell was asked by an LAPD supervisor “if a specific cart belonged to him.”
Mitchell said the carts he owned were two carts from the Hippie Kitchen, and not a third stolen cart that was next to him. He was nevertheless arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for possessing a stolen shopping cart.
The property in all three carts was then thrown into the back of a truck without separating them, according to the lawsuit. When Mitchell asked for his backpack, which contained medications, medical papers and other personal items, he was refused.
Mitchell was kept in custody for 18 hours at the Metropolitan Detention Center, then released at night into 40-degree weather in downtown Los Angeles, the lawsuit said. He slept on the sidewalk under a single blanket he found. He did not receive a receipt or inventory of the items seized from him and has
been unable to retrieve his belongings.
The City Attorney’s Office rejected the charges against Mitchell.