Lawsuit filed to protect homeless people’s constitutional rights

A lawsuit was filed August 2, 2007 in the federal court challenging Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance and confiscation of property without prior notice or proper storage.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 individual plaintiffs who have had their property taken by City and County work crews and/or have been cited for camping on public property. Loaves & Fishes, Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee (SHOC), and Francis House have joined the suit as plaintiffs. The lawsuit charges that the City and County practices are an ongoing violation of rights guaranteed by the 8th, 4th and 14th Amendments to the U. S. Constitution. Class action certification is being sought.

“City and County governments in Sacramento have a long history of taking basic survival equipment from homeless people without proper notice,” said Mark Merin, the principal attorney for the group. “Tents, sleeping bags and blankets are tossed into County dumpsters by Sheriff’s work crews and homeless people are left to shiver in the night. Deputies then write them tickets for sleeping. It is our goal to get these practices stopped before the onset of winter.”

“People think that homeless people can just go to shelters,” Merin continued. “But there are not enough shelters available at any time of the year in Sacramento. People have to sleep and if they have no housing and no shelter is available, then they have to sleep out in the open. The solution to homelessness is housing. It is not in harassing homeless people until they go away.

The lawsuit asks that the city and county provide notice to homeless people of an intended clean-up of camping sites in a reasonable period of time before a sweep and that the property taken be stored at a location reasonably proximate to the place from which it was taken to give homeless people an opportunity to reclaim their property. The city is being asked to quit citing homeless people during the night or early morning hours. Other requests are for clean, maintained portable toilets, sinks and garbage dumpsters located near where homeless people sleep. Also, storage spaces for their possessions would be requested. These measures would allow homeless people to help alleviate many burdens placed on the general community. Further real solutions to homelessness will be asked for, such as funding for additional shelters, homeless services and permanent housing. Individuals plaintiffs should also be compensated for lost property and a small amount per incident.

The criminalization of homelessness has been the policy of Sacramento for many years in response to a growing homeless population. City and County policy makers have been educated from more recent national studies and practices that prove that the criminal justice system not only is not a solution to homelessness, criminalization can put further obstructions in a homeless person’s ability to better their residential situation. It has been found that providing housing and services to homeless people is less expensive to a community than if the person is left homeless. This is because a person that is homeless makes more emergency hospital visits, uses more mental health services, shelter stays, jail and booking fees, court costs, etc. When a person is stable in housing these costs to the community are minimized and a formerly homeless person will be more likely to seek help and take steps towards their independence.
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Press conference at Loaves & Fishes memorial wall. Main attorneys left to right: Mark Merin, Cathleen Williams, Kelly Tanalepy, Gary Gallery, Ron Blubaugh