- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Janet Garcia, living on the streets of Los Angeles, says she stepped away from her tent “momentarily” to use a bathroom and get ready for her cleaning services job.

City employees swooped in, seized her tent and her cleaning supplies, and quickly destroyed them as part of authorities’ zealous attempts to deal with what may be the country’s worst homeless crisis.

Ms. Garcia and six other homeless people sued last month, asking a federal judge to step in and order the city to cease its sanitation sweeps and recognize that the homeless have a right to their private property.

Their chief target is a 2016 city ordinance that empowers the cleanups, and the way the city’s sanitation, public works and police departments carry out the law.

“Although homeless residents may not have a roof over their heads, they are nevertheless entitled to the constitutional protections that every other resident of the city enjoys,” the homeless people said in their lawsuit.

Legal scholars say they’ve got a good chance of winning, saying the law is vague and may conflict with the Constitution’s prohibition against seizures — particularly since there doesn’t appear to be a way for the homeless to contest or demand payback for their property.

“They have a pretty good case at least on the point that the government shouldn’t be able to just seize the property and keep it without compensating them. It strikes me as a taking,” said Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University.

David Rudovsky, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said it appears Los Angeles is treating the homeless differently than it treats those who have homes.

“Arbitrary seizure of people’s property that is not really dangerous to somebody, it’s not contraband, it’s not of immediate public heath risk to the community, I think cannot be allowed even for homeless people,” he said.

The city said the 2016 ordinance was an attempt to “balance” the needs of all of its residents.

The rules prohibit people from “storing” belongings in public. Any item deemed a public health threat or too “bulky” can be seized. That means most things that can’t fit into a “60-gallon container.”

Gladys “Jane” Zepeda, who lost her apartment in February, was living in a tent in March when police officers and sanitation workers made an unannounced stop at their camp in Koreatown. Anything she couldn’t fit into a single 60-gallon trash bag was taken and destroyed, she says in the lawsuit.

She lost her tent, tarps, clean clothing and a chest containing important documents.

While most items are destroyed, citing public health and safety hazards, some items are stored for 90 days, allowing the individuals to come downtown to claim their property.

A spokesperson for the city attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

In their lawsuit, the homeless people blamed the city for their crisis, saying there aren’t enough affordable housing or beds in homeless shelters.

Los Angeles does fund some storage facilities for homeless persons to leave belongings such as “The Bin,” a warehouse of plastic containers in the city’s Skid Row.

Mayor Eric Garcetti toured the warehouse last week, according to CBS Los Angeles, where he promised more funding to employ homeless people to clean up their own neighborhood.

In their lawsuit, the homeless acknowledged facilities like The Bin, but said there aren’t enough, nor is there enough temporary assistance on other sanitation needs.

“Rather than investing in solutions like bathrooms, handwashing stations, and trash cans, which would both meet the real and immediate public health needs of the city’s thousands of unhoused residents, and in turn, would also respond address many residents’ complaints, the city has responded instead by seizing and destroying homeless people’s belongings,” they complained.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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