The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) asked a federal judge Thursday to order a pause on sweeps of homeless encampments that the organization claims violate the constitutional rights of homeless people.
The civil rights group filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of two homeless people, the Real Change Homeless Advocacy Project and the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia claiming that crews working on behalf of the city of Seattle and Washington Department of Transportation illegally seized and threw away the possessions of people experiencing homelessness during the course of encampment cleanups.
Depriving people of their possessions — including medicines, government identification and irreplaceable personal items — without notice, a warrant or due process is a violation of their constitutional rights, said Doug Honig, spokesperson for the ACLU.
“There are over 2,000 people living outside in Seattle, losing possessions that are vital to them,” Honig said. “The City Council hasn’t been able to resolve this problem, and it’s cold weather and they need some protection from the law.”
Attorneys for the city were not able to comment on the complaint at press time.
The complaint details the circumstances of two homeless people, Lisa Hooper and Brandie Osborne, who have experienced sweeps several times near their campsites at Interstate 90 and Rainier Avenue South and Interstate 5 and Airport Way, respectively.
It alleges that crews working on behalf of the city and state enter campsites without appropriate notice, remove belongings inappropriately and dispose of them, whether or not the owners are present. In the event that items are stored, as is policy, it can be nearly impossible for people to reclaim them.
An employee cited in the complaint estimated that owners are able to recover between 1 and 2 percent of stored items.
The city and state have established procedures for the cleanup of homeless encampments, but the complaint states that they are poorly followed. Even if they were, there are many loopholes that afford little protection and recourse for those caught in sweeps.
Seattle officials have been working to fix these policies for some time. The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services, among other groups, offered legislation that the organizations believed would provide adequate protection to homeless people and allow garbage cleanups and removal of hazardous materials. Mayor Ed Murray scuttled that legislation at the eleventh hour.
The ACLU is asking a federal judge to find the current procedures violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, and that the city and state stop conducting sweeps until they adopt and implement policies and procedures that do not.