Two homeless people filed suit against Washington, D.C., saying the city violated their rights by taking and improperly disposing of belongings vital to survival outdoors. Officials cleared several homeless encampments in the city last year, citing health concerns and fire safety.
Plaintiffs Shanel Proctor and Charlaine Braxton evoked the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures and sought a court order requiring the city to uphold its own protocol for handling seized property: to keep seized belongings in storage for 60 days, preserving ID, bikes, and tents.
“As a result of the District’s practice, plaintiffs are in grave danger of suffering irreparable harm through loss of personal property that is necessary for survival or that cannot be replaced,” according to the lawsuit.
The Los Angeles Times reported an Orange County, Calif., judge issued a restraining order against camp-clearing in February, similar to the one sought by Proctor and Braxton in Washington, to prevent trespassing charges against residents who refuse to leave their camps.
Besides other constitutional rights, the D.C. lawsuit also brings into focus the issue of liberty: People do not necessarily want to follow government plans to house them. “We have the resources to provide shelter to the individuals in the encampments,” said Sean Barry, communications director for the city’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. “The lynchpin of the [city’s] protocol is inviting individuals into safer shelter and ultimately housing.”
Some cities have employed a different strategy of keeping people where they are, insisting that camps be made semi-permanent, as in a 2016 Oakland, Calif., initiative, in which officials added toilets and trash cans and provided some cleaning. —R.H.