Homeless Go to Court Over Destruction of Property During Sweeps

A lawsuit filed against the city says people have lost medicine, birth certificates, and other goods.

Thursday around noon, federal judge Ricardo Martinez heard arguments in a lawsuit against the City of Seattle and the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) by homeless campers whose property has been seized and destroyed during evictions. Six months ago, Martinez declined to grant a temporary restraining order, telling the plaintiffs to come back with more evidence.

So they did. According to the plaintiff’s written argument for this hearing, they’ve obtained city documents, deposition, and other evidence (including a citation from the Weekly) showing that more than a thousand evictions have occurred since Mayor Ed Murray declared a State of Emergency almost two years ago.

In addition, they found that:

  • About 60 percent of evictions since January 2016 have been conducted without the 72-hour notice that city rules theoretically require;
  • Property has been salvaged, rather than just trashed, from evicted sites only 15 percent of the time since January 2016;
  • Only nine evictees have successfully reclaimed seized property since January 2, 2016;
  • Outreach was not offered in nearly 45 percent of sweeps in 2017.

The plaintiffs, represented by the state ACLU, argued that trespassing does not obviate a person’s Fourth Amendment protections from illegal search and seizure by the government. The defendants countered that authorities are doing their best protect poor people’s constitutional rights while still preserving public health and safety.

Martinez said that due to a busy schedule, he expects to rule on this “fascinating” and “very important case” by late next week. But he left the courtroom with a hint of where he’s leaning when he concluded the hearing by saying, “It’s not a secret that I’m sympathetic to the plaintiffs.”

Plaintiff’s attorney Todd Williams argued that despite assurances to the contrary, city evictions are “inconsistent and unpredictable.” Referring to the city rules that ostensibly govern encampment evictions, Williams said, “The city is using their vagueness to drive a truck through the loopholes.”

The plaintiffs are four homeless Seattleites—Lisa Hooper, Brandie Osborne, Kayla Willis and Reavy Washington—who hope the judge will treat them as representatives of the larger class of people who are dispossessed by sweeps, as well as Real Change, Trinity Parish of Seattle and the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. “Real Change has seen a decline in the circulation of its paper, in part due to the stress and trauma imposed by the sweeps on its vendors,” reads their written argument. “The Episcopal Diocese has seen a dramatic increase in the use of its services and forgone rental income for space it instead devotes to serving the unhoused.”

According to their written argument, the individual plaintiffs and other evicted homeless people said that in evictions they’d lost medicines, mementos, identification, and a birth certificate. Some carry everything they own on their backs now, so it won’t be stolen again. One woman got scabies after losing her toiletries and not showering. A Real Change vendor was so afraid of being swept she skipped work and avoided going to the toilet. “An individual at St. Luke’s fell into a diabetic coma after Defendants destroyed his insulin and another individual on St. Luke’s property who had been on a methadone treatment plan subsequently relapsed after he lost his methadone and ID in a sweep,” according to the complaint.

Williams said his clients are not denying the city’s authority to evict people out of dangerous or inappropriate locations, but are “challenging the process” of property seizure and destruction that typically occurs at those evictions.

“Just because plaintiffs don’t have a right to be on [public] property,” Williams said in court on Thursday, “they don’t lose their Fourth Amendment rights” protecting against unwarranted search and seizure.

“We would disagree that the city is doing anything remotely resembling summarily destroying property,” responded Matt Segal, attorney for the City of Seattle. Rather than believing the “pervasive amounts of hearsay” in the unreliable testimony of the plaintiffs and other homeless people, he said, Martinez should listen to “testimony from the folks out there every day” performing the evictions. Segal added that the plaintiffs have not shown that the sweeps (and pursuent seizure and destruction of campers’ property) causes legally actionable “harm.”

Segal pointed to the notorious Field encampment as an example of why city “cleanup” crews need discretion rather than oversight when dealing with “environmental conditions” like the presence of human feces in the dirt. “This is not the way that people are supposed to live for a long time without infrastructure,” he said.

As we have previously reported, the Field was created and sponsored by city authorities during the lead-up to the eviction of the Jungle in fall 2015. Hundreds of campers who had lived beneath the I-5 freeway were directed by authorities to move into a small field at the intersection of Airport Way and Royal Brougham. The lucky ones found spots beneath the freeway onramp wherefore that parcel of land exists.

Once the Jungle was empty and the Field was full, city authorities pivoted, suddenly expressing shock and dismay at Field’s conditions, despite attempts by Washington (one of the plaintiffs) and other Field campers to organize trash disposal, fire extinguishers, and other essentials. As we appraised at the time, “Campers get blamed for problems they lack the resources to solve.” On Tuesday, March 7, police and city bureaucrats evicted the Field. Reporters and volunteers were not allowed inside its perimeter.  

Segal also showed several pictures of used hypodermic needles on the ground, arguing that because of their ubiquity, eviction crews that put themselves at risk of getting pricked when they try to differentiate between property and trash. The needles are “on the ground, in the tents, in the bedding—they’re everywhere.

“It’s not so simple as…we’ll store everything that’s quote ‘property,’” he said. The city is making a “good faith effort” to obey the constitution, Segal said. Assistant Attorney General Matt Huot added that what counts as property versus trash is highly subjective. “Different people will view ‘abandoned’ in different ways,” he said. “Judgement calls will have to be made.”

Huot asked the judge to dismiss the class action part of the lawsuit because each eviction is unique. “Cleanups are done not as part of some overarching scheme,” he said. “There’s a wide variety [of eviction circumstances] here that doesn’t lend itself to an overarching scheme.”

This contradicts statements by Mayor Murray and other officials, who have said that in addition to evacuating encampments in unsafe areas, the evictions serve the purpose of incentivizing homeless campers to accept shelter and services. This fits into the plan proposed by consultant Barbara Poppe to end Seattle homelessness within a few years by radically improving the efficiency of transitional shelter services.

After the hearing, Washington responded to the technical argument made by city attorneys that this lawsuit does not meet the qualifications for a class action. “The attorneys are talking about there’s no class,” he said. “Well, there is a class there. It’s the class of homelessness. We all represent each other, one way or the other, we’re homeless and looking at keeping our things.”