Updated: April 20, 2018 at 6:05 p.m.
Two members of D.C.’s homeless population are suing the city, alleging that authorities have violated their Constitutional rights by repeatedly confiscating and improperly disposing of personal items during clearings of homeless camps.
The suit, filed as a 15-page complaint to the D.C. District Court March 28, alleges that the city has confiscated and discarded shelters and belongings in at least 70 different camp sweeps, including the raid on a homeless camp on E and 20th streets in November. Proponents of the suit said the clearings deprive homeless people across the District of their basic belongings and leave those already struggling with fewer resources to survive on the streets.
Plaintiffs Shanel Proctor and Charlaine Braxton, who currently sleep in tents near Union Station, claim in the suit that the District and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser have violated city regulations that require D.C. to keep confiscated belongings in storage lockers for 60 days and not discard any personal identification, bicycles or functional tents when clearing encampments.
The plaintiffs are seeking a court order against the city requiring the District to abide by its protocol for handling property seized in camp clearings.
“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,” the suit states.
A representative from Covington and Burling, a D.C.-based law firm representing Proctor and Braxton, said in a statement that the city has been violating the Fourth Amendment for “a number of years” by improperly seizing personal property belonging to homeless residents in the District.
Ann Marie Staudenmaier, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the government’s seizing of personal property forces the homeless to survive without “live-saving” items, like tents, which protect their belongings and shelter them from bad weather.
“What these encampment clearings are doing is rendering people more vulnerable and in a more dangerous situation than they were before,” Staudenmaier said.
The lawsuit cites the E Street clearing as an example of a raid in which officials “destroyed all unattended property, including tents, notwithstanding assertions by numerous residents that the property was still in use by other residents.”
Student advocates sought to stop the clearing of the camp, which officials said was unsanitary and lacked basic resources, in the days before authorities moved in.
Staudenmaier said D.C. government’s treatment of homeless encampments first became a primary issue in 2015, after government officials cleared a camp near the Watergate area – one of the first incidents to attract a large amount of media attention.
Homeless communities have remained in the Foggy Bottom and NoMa areas because they are closest to resources like psychiatric help, grocery stores and shelters, like Miriam’s Kitchen, a homeless support and advocacy organization on Virginia Avenue, Staudenmaier said.
“People know those neighborhoods and they’ve been in those neighborhoods for a long time and I think they feel comfortable,” she said.
Staudenmaier said she cannot predict the outcome of the case but it’s likely the courts will favor the plaintiffs, citing similar rulings nationwide. Earlier this year, courts in Orange County, Calif. issued restraining orders to local police during encampment clearings.
Sean Barry, a communications director in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit, but said the encampment protocol is meant to protect all citizens from health and safety concerns, like shelter fires and poor sanitation.
“We firmly believe homelessness is not a crime and we have the resources to provide shelter to the individuals in the encampments,” Barry said in an email. “The lynchpin of the protocol is inviting individuals into safer shelter and ultimately housing.”
Foggy Bottom Association President Marina Streznewski said one of the biggest issues with the clearings is that the District doesn’t follow “their own rules,” because they are discarding items protected by the protocol. FBA started a task force to provide support to the homeless in the area and advocate for them in discussions with city officials.
“It’s imminently reasonable that when an encampment is cleared out that the District stores people’s belongings for a reasonable period of time,” she said. “If they’re not doing that, then they’re clearly at fault.”
She said discarded items are supposed to be stored in plastic tubs, but she has seen authorities take bicycles from a Foggy Bottom encampment and throw them in the trash.
Seth Kurzban, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, said unwarranted seizures arise because city officials have trouble determining which items are personal and which can be discarded – and forgotten belongings are often reclaimed by others. He said barring encampment raids is often considered a win for homeless advocates, but if unchecked, these camps can become public health hazards.
“We think a lot of that is contributed to the fact that these are becoming semi-permanent communities, but not with any built-in public health like fresh clean water, waste facilities, bathrooms or places to do laundry,” he said.
Eric Tars, a senior attorney at the D.C.-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said a 2017 NLCHP report on homeless encampments, which surveyed 187 cities across the country, found that only 20 cities have formal policies requiring notices for encampment cleaning and have designated storage areas for confiscated belongings.
“When a city councilperson or mayor gets a call from a business that says, ‘We’re upset about an encampment out here,’ to just go through and sweep it immediately and not worry about the consequences for the individuals who are there,” he said.