ACLU Lawsuit Over Pittsburgh's Property Sweeps of Homeless Results in One of Nation's Most Protective Policies

May 13, 2003 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH — Under a settlement reached in a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Pittsburgh’s unsheltered homeless people by the American Civil Liberties Union, city officials have agreed to stop destroying homeless people’s property and to provide advance notice of property sweeps.

Witold Walczak, the Pittsburgh ACLU’s Legal Director who handled the case, praised the settlement. “A week ago, the city refused to do more than tell one social service worker that a sweep would occur, and insisted that it had a right to immediately destroy homeless people’s possessions. Now, the city will have one of the nation’s better policies for protecting homeless people’s property rights.”

Highlights of the agreement approved by Chief United States District Court Judge Donetta Ambrose on May 9th include the following:

  • The city will give seven days advance notice of sweeps by placing fliers at affected homeless encampments and by faxing the flier to social service agencies that serve the homeless;
  • The city will store for at least one year all personal possessions having some value that are collected during sweeps;
  • Further notices alerting people that items have been collected and providing information about how to re-claim property will be left at each cleaned encampment;
  • Homeless people whose possessions have been confiscated will be able to re-claim their property from a centrally-located, secure storage area during convenient hours;
  • Items not collected from storage for one year following the sweep will be offered to social service agencies before being disposed of; and
  • The city will write implementation policies in consultation with local Homeless Outreach Coordinating Committee, a coalition of area homeless-service-provider representatives.

Walczak also noted that the agreement allows area homeless people to enforce the terms in federal court for three years. “Given this city administration’s disdain for, and past treatment of, the homeless and their rights, an airtight agreement that could be enforced in federal court was a crucial part of the settlement.”

Area homeless-service providers, who had been trying for four years to get the city to provide notice of sweeps and to not destroy collected property, praised the ACLU’s work. Robert “Mac” MacMahon, a spokesperson for the Homeless Outreach Coordinating Committee thanked the ACLU “for providing the homeless with a voice in their legal fight, so that they may be accorded their civil rights no matter what their housing situation may be.”

The case is Sager v. City of Pittsburgh, CA-03-0635 (W.D. Pa., Ambrose, C.J.). The settlement agreement can be found at /node/35115

A news release about the filing of the case is online at /node/10106

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