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The California Transportation Department Is Cruelly and Unconstitutionally Destroying Homeless People’s Belongings

San Francisco Homeless Encampment, 2016
San Francisco Homeless Encampment, 2016
Michael Risher,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Northern California
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December 15, 2016

Sometimes the trucks arrive early. Sometimes they come with no notice at all. Sometimes, while workers from the California Department of Transportation make their way down the row of tents—seizing property and cherished belongings—people have mere seconds to grab everything they can. Then they stand and watch as their bedding, clothes, tools, bikes, medicine, food, and other things are tossed into a trash compactor and destroyed.

I’ve heard this story countless times from homeless people in the Bay Area and beyond. My colleagues who work on issues of poverty and inequality have too. For decades, save a few years where good practices and policies were followed because of lawsuit settlements, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and other government agencies in California have been conducting illegal sweeps of homeless encampments, cruelly and unconstitutionally seizing and destroying property.

That’s why we just filed a class-action lawsuit that seeks to stop this illegal practice once and for all.

The suit was filed on behalf of people like Kimberlee Sanchez, a longtime Oakland resident who has been homeless for five years. Kimberlee has been the victim of more sweeps than she cares to remember. In the latest one, Caltrans crews confiscated and destroyed an 18 karat gold necklace that had been a gift for Mother’s Day, a Coleman stove, food, her bedding, clothes, and a tent. She protested and was ignored.

Kimberlee Sanchez

James Leone not only lost his belongings but was threatened with a Taser when workers took his stuff. The 56-year-old ended up homeless after losing his job during the recession of 2008. In April, Caltrans came to his camp and told him he had five minutes to move his belongings. But after only three, they began throwing his things, including his bike, into a trash compacter.

When Leone pulled his bicycle out of the compactor, a California Highway Patrol officer threatened him with a Taser. That day, he lost his sleeping mat and bedding, all his clothing except what he was wearing, camping equipment, his Walkman, a family photo album, and a personal phone book.

James Leone

Homeless people like Kimberlee and James deserve respect for their humanity and their belongings. Caltrans should be giving proper notice before raiding encampments and refusing people an opportunity to move their belongings.

We can’t expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if we’ve destroyed their boots.

We are seeking a permanent injunction to stop this practice throughout California. We’re also seeking damages for people whose property has been illegally taken in the cities of Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. They have lost cherished and necessary items, including family heirlooms, irreplaceable photographs, tents and sleeping bags, warm weather clothing, tools, food, stoves, and personal documents including identification.

The homeless population in the Bay Area is increasing as housing becomes more and more expensive. Taking and destroying people’s property is not a solution. To the contrary, it makes it all that much harder for homeless people to find housing and get back on their feet. It’s also against the law.

The sweeps are in violation of the United States and California Constitutions, California statutory and common law, and Caltrans’ own policies.

The Fourth Amendment protects people from the unreasonable seizure and destruction of their property by the government, whether they live in a mansion or a tent. Furthermore, the constitutional prohibition against depriving people of their property without due process requires the government to give specific notice in advance of when it will conduct these operations and provide an opportunity for people to reclaim any property that it does seize.

Caltrans is confiscating belongings that are critical to the survival of some of our most vulnerable citizens and crushing their hope of finding shelter and stability. It’s unconstitutional and unjust. We can’t expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if we’ve destroyed their boots.

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