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ACLU files lawsuit against Seattle, WSDOT over homeless sweeps

Seattle protesters demonstrate in 2016 as crews conducted a homeless sweep in the infamous Jungle where various encampments were located. (KIRO 7)

The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit Thursday against the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation over homeless sweeps in unauthorized encampments throughout the city.

“Imagine if government agents came to your home and carted away everything you own, without any warning and without telling you how to get back whatever they didn’t throw out,” said ACLU-WA Legal Director Emily Chiang. “For people living outdoors in Seattle, this horrifying scenario is too often a reality – and has been so for years.”

Related: A candid account of Seattle’s homeless crisis

The ACLU is representing the Episcopal Diocese, Real Change, and two homeless individuals, claiming the city and WSDOT violated the rights of people living outside by seizing their property, and at times, throwing that property away. The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle alleges that the city and WSDOT often threw away the private property without adequate notice or a reasonable way for the individuals to reclaim their belongings.

“We are asking the court to step in and stop the city and the state from these practices which violate people’s rights,” said Doug Honig with the ACLU.

“The city and the state certainly has the right to step in when there are health and safety concerns – we are not saying they can’t do that,” he said. “What this lawsuit focuses on is that when the government does a cleanup of an encampment, it has to follow the Constitution and it has to protect people rights to their own property.”

Honig argues that there needs to be adequate notice or a meaningful way for people to reclaim their property if it is removed from a camp.

“What we’ve seen is that he city and state, in dealing with encampments of people without homes, far too often has been seizing their property and often destroying it,” Honig said. “We are talking about peoples’ essential items – tents, tools, IDs, sleeping bags, parts of their personal lives. Somebody recently lost her child’s teeth that she had been saving and were very dear to her.”

“People without houses have the same rights to their property as people with houses,” he said.

Homeless sweeps

The ACLU lawsuit aims to get a court order to stop Seattle and WSDOT from further seizing any property during homeless sweeps, and destroying that property, without adequate notice. The order they seek will require Seattle and WSDOT provide opportunities for owners to retrieve their belongings.

The most recent estimate on Seattle’s homeless population state that more than 2,000 people are living in the city unsheltered. This has led to many homeless encampments in rights of way throughout the city. In the past, when an unauthorized camp was reported to city officials, campers were given 72-hour notice to move. This has commonly been referred to as “homeless sweeps.” When camps were left, a clean-up crew was called in to dispose of the property left behind. Seattle, however, has recently considered new policies regarding how to sweep homeless encampments. The ACLU was also involved in that homeless sweeps issue, as well.

ACLU is representing The Episcopal Diocese, a church that serves the local homeless community; and Real Change, a newspaper covering homeless issues. Homeless individuals often sell Real Change on the street.

“When our vendors lose their belongings because of actions by city and state officials, their lives are severely disrupted. They can no longer sell papers and earn an income. They instead must devote their time to replacing lost articles, and their lives become more unstable,” said Tim Harris, Director of Real Change.

But it is also representing two individuals in the lawsuit who claim that they lost property because of homeless sweeps.

Lisa Hooper alleges that WSDOT crews swept her camp in 2015. She lived in the camp for two years. She lost family photos and mementos, legal paperwork, a mattress, clothing and several shoes which left her without a matching pair.

Brandie Osborn alleges that she has been forced to move her camp four times in the past 18 months. An ACLU release states that she lives in constant fear of the city or WSDOT coming to take her possessions.

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