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Whether You Live in a Mansion or Under a Bridge, the Government Can’t Just Take Your Stuff

Homeless in Seattle
Homeless in Seattle
Amy Roe,
Senior Writer,
ACLU of Washington
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January 27, 2017

Imagine if government agents came to your home and carted away everything you own, without warning and without telling you how to get back whatever they didn’t throw out.

For Lisa Hooper, who lives with her partner outdoors near Interstate 90 in Seattle, this is an ever-present threat. One day in May 2015, workers tasked with cleaning up homeless encampments showed up. Lisa scrambled to pack up their things. Her partner was gone at the time, and Lisa couldn’t carry everything by herself. She took what was necessary for their survival, sleeping bags and cold-weather gear.

When Lisa returned to their home of two years, everything she’d left was gone: baby teeth from her grown children and the only photos she had of them. Important legal paperwork. A mattress. The family Bible.

Lisa’s experience is hardly unusual. In 2016, workers for the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation conducted approximately 600 sweeps of areas where homeless people live, averaging nearly 11 a week. By contrast, in 2012, there were just 80 sweeps in Seattle all year.

In America, everyone has the right to their personal property. Whether we live next door or outdoors makes no difference.

Calling them sweeps makes it sounds as if workers simply push around a Swiffer, when in reality they bring in a backhoe. People have cried and begged for clean-up crews to wait and let them pack up their stuff, mostly to no avail. At times workers have destroyed peoples’ property right in front of them. They’ve taken tents, sleeping bags, a wheelchair, inhalers. And because Seattle and WSDOT fail to adequately and consistently inform people who live outside that their stuff and homes are in jeopardy, they often have no idea when or if the backhoe is coming.

The uncertainty and fear, the tears and heavy machinery are all hallmarks of a government raid. Like raiders throughout history, Seattle and WSDOT tend not to return what they seize. Workers who clear out homeless encampments routinely fail to keep track of what is kept and what gets destroyed, leaving people with no way of knowing whether it’s even possible to get their stuff back, or how.

The city has claimed that the only way to improve the health and safety of homeless encampments is to mow them down and put what remains in a dumpster. This is a false choice. Individual rights and public safety need not be fundamentally at odds with each other, and destroying a person’s property does nothing to get them into stable, permanent housing. In fact, it often makes it harder for them just to survive outside.

If government agents were to show up in other Seattle neighborhoods, clear homes of bedding and furniture, empty the fridge and medicine chest, and truck the whole lot away with little or no legal recourse for the owners, no one would call it waste removal. People who live nearby would raise a ruckus at this illegal search and seizure.

They’d be right. No matter where we live or how we manage to survive, every single person in this nation has the right not to have the government take their things away without the opportunity to be heard or to contest it — or any chance to get their stuff back.

This is why, on behalf of Lisa and the 2,000 other people currently living outside Seattle, the ACLU of Washington is suing the city of Seattle and WSDOT. We’re asking the court to stop them from seizing and destroying property that belongs to people living outside without adequate notice, an opportunity for property owners to contest the seizure, and a meaningful way for owners to reclaim their belongings. Plaintiffs in the suit also include the Episcopal Diocese and Real Change, a newspaper with many homeless vendors affected by these actions.

In America, everyone has the right to their personal property. Whether we live next door or outdoors makes no difference. The Constitution protects each of us, all of the time.

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