Seattle and the state transportation department are violating the rights of people living outside when they seize and destroy their property, says a federal class-action lawsuit filed Thursday.
Two people who are homeless in Seattle filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, saying the city and the state transportation department are violating rights of people living outdoors by seizing and destroying their property.
Joined in the lawsuit by the region’s Episcopal Diocese and the Real Change street newspaper, Brandie Osborne and Lisa Hooper say so-called “sweeps” of homeless campsresult in property being taken and thrown away.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status. There are thousands of homeless people living in unauthorized camps on Seattle’s streets and under and alongside state roads and highways that run through the city.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Osborne and Hooper say the property is seized without adequate and effective notice or a meaningful way to reclaim anything not destroyed.
They say the sweeps, also known as cleanups or evictions, deprive people of belongings they need to survive, including clothing, tents, cooking utensils and medication.
Important personal possessions, including identification documents, tools and mementos like photographs and heirlooms, are also wrongly seized and destroyed, the plaintiffs say.
The lawsuit says Hooper has lost family photos and mementos, legal paperwork, a mattress, clothing and shoes.
It says the sweeps are “unnecessarily cruel” and violate the rights of people living outside to protection from unreasonable search and seizure, to protection from invasion of homes and privacy, and to due process.
The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop the city and state from carrying out sweeps until their practices change.
“Imagine if government agents came to your home and carted away everything you own, without any warning and without telling you how to get back whatever they didn’t throw out,” Emily Chiang, the ACLU of Washington’s legal director, said in a statement.
“For people living outdoors in Seattle, this horrifying scenario is too often a reality — and has been so for years.”
If a judge certifies the lawsuit as a class action, there will be an estimated 2,000 potential plaintiffs — all homeless people keeping belongings on public property in Seattle, said Breanne Schuster, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Washington.
Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for City Attorney Pete Holmes, declined to comment. She said Holmes has yet to review the lawsuit.
Mayor Ed Murray didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
The mayor has said encampment cleanups, carried out humanely, are needed to address public-safety and trash problems associated with Seattle’s hundreds of illegal camps.
The city has protocols for the sweeps, including 72 hours’ notice for campers.
A WSDOT spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit. He said safety is the agency’s top priority.
“We understand that homelessness is a major issue affecting many across the state,” said the spokesman, Travis Phelps. “However, those camping on WSDOT property are putting both themselves and others at risk. In addition, many of these areas are typically inaccessible to service providers.”
Phelps added, “We continue to work with agency partners, social service providers and outreach groups to provide compassionate outreach to those experiencing homelessness.”
This isn’t the first time the ACLU and other organization have filed lawsuits over encampment sweeps.
In September, a federal judge in Tacoma ruled that Clark County violated the constitutional rights of homeless people by throwing out their tents, stoves, medication, documents and photographs during sweeps.
The ACLU of Washington’s Schuster compared Thursday’s lawsuit to a case brought against Los Angeles by nine homeless people.
In 2012, a federal appeals-court panel sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that possessions left for a short time by people living on the streets may be taken only if the items pose an immediate threat or are criminal evidence.
The lawsuit comes after years of debate in Seattle over homeless-camp evictions. In August, a Seattle Times report showed how the actions were beset by bureaucratic failures, including missed start-times and camper complaints of lost belongings.
Soon afterward, the ACLU of Washington and like-minded organizations proposed legislation that would give more protections to people living outside.
Tim Harris, Real Change executive director, said he and others have been warning the city about a lawsuit for more than a year.
Harris said Seattle has made strides in how it treats people living outdoors. But he said he doesn’t think Murray’s reforms will go far enough. Many Real Change vendors are people who are homeless.
This has been a long time coming,” Harris said. “Most of our vendors who are homeless sleep out, and we see the impact on them when they lose their belongings in a sweep. It’s devastating for people living on the edge.”