ACLU lawsuit says City and WSDOT have not stopped destroying property of homeless campers and violate their civil rights

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Pushed out of the “Jungle” then booted from the Dearborn camp  (photo: city of Seattle)

Neil Powers reports on ACLU’s attempt to stop the sweeps and actions city has engaged in that were basis for the appeal

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA) has major concerns about how people in Seattle’s homeless encampments are being treated. It filed a request for a preliminary injunction to the U.S. District Court for the Western Division of Washington at Seattle, on June 14th, trying to force the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to stop “unlawful actions immediately” related to sweeps of homeless encampments in the city and the destruction of private property.

The motion, filed on behalf “plaintiff’s” including several affected homeless, the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, Trinity Parish of Seattle, and Real Change, offers declarations from 30 individuals and 70 exhibits, and a video that appears to show a worker using a cutting device to destroy a tent.

The ACLU maintains that the City of Seattle and WSDOT continue to destroy property of people experiencing homelessness, having broken-up encampments on average of one each weekday from February 22 – May 1, 2017. It claims the city and WSDOT (Defendants in the case) have not followed through on a commitment to do better in closing homeless encampments. The ACLU claims WSDOT and the city did not save any personal items from nearly 30 percent of encampment sweeps during this time.

The city, under its established protocols, also is required to provide at least a 72-hour notice at any encampment that is to be removed. The ACLU charges that during the recent February-May time period, Seattle did not post notice in over 55 percent of the encampment removals. They managed to avoid the requirement, according to the suit, by labeling most of the encampments as an “obstruction” or a “hazard”.

The current City of Seattle website on “Unauthorized Encampments” states that the city follows strict rules and priority for removing encampments is “based on health and safety issues.” It goes on to list “criminal behavior” and “obstructing a facility” (such as a sidewalk) as other top priorities for encampment removal. 

But according to the ACLU’s suit, the ongoing breakup of homeless encampments continues without strict protocols making it extremely difficult for people to survive.

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City of Seattle photo: contrary to those saying homeless are ‘overrunning” Seattle parks only 24 of 3000 unsheltered from the the 2016 one-night count slept in our parks

Their current request for a preliminary injunction for a halt to encampment sweeps follows the January ACLU lawsuit also filed in U.S. District Court. That lawsuit stated the constitutional rights of unhoused individuals were being violated and called for an end to homeless sweeps. In February Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez responded to the January legal action, denying the ACLU’s motion for a temporary restraining order on homeless encampment sweeps by the City of Seattle and WSDOT.

“We continued with the case and found evidence that showed that defendants’ actions are still causing serious harm to people living outside and the situation is dire, which is why we filed a motion for preliminary injunction,” said the ACLU’s Amy Roe.

Their June 14th motion claims the city’s Office of Civil Rights’ monitors notified the city’s Finance and Administrative Services Department personnel of “concerns with Defendant’s’ practice of discarding any property that was subjectively determined to be wet or potentially moist but Defendants have continued to destroy this property anyway.”The motion also claims that city workers subjectively decide what is in “less-than-perfect condition”, giving the example of a tent with two small tears judged to be “damaged beyond repair” so they would not have to store it.

Given record rainfall this winter and spring, nearly all tents could be judged beyond repair and not storable. The ACLU also charges the city with destroying tents and structures “before safeguarding the property inside” exposing these to the rain as well and thus not storable.

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Another sweep in the works: “In 968 cleanups over 21 recent months in Seattle, belongings were inventoried only 7 percent of the time”, said the lawyer, Todd Williams.” (quote from Seattle Times article)

The motion also alleges the City has denied unhoused individuals’ requests to the City for wood chips, gravel, or other assistance to prevent their belongings from becoming soiled or muddied.

In March city officials amended its Multi-Departmental Administration Rules (MDAR’s) for encampment procedures and they continue to maintain the MDAR’s are followed. The ACLU disagrees citing specific instances of sweeps where the rules were circumvented.

For example the ACLU cites an April 11, 2017 sweep under the West Seattle Bridge where a witness observed city officials destroying “about ten tents” within an hour of their arrival. City workers were seen “using knives to slash open tents and cut tent tie-down ropes.” Instead of pulling down tent poles normally, city workers would “cut the fabric pockets holding the ends of the tent poles…” rendering useless otherwises functional tents.

The ACLU claims the City has taken these actions at encampments on the grounds of public health but the plaintiffs’ claim there is no “scientific evidence on which to rely.” The court is expected to hear the case in October.

– Neil Powers was a longtime staffer for former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck. Afterwards Powers worked at United Way of King County on homelessness. More recently he has been studying journalism in Toronto.

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Shut down and no where to go (photo: David Bloom)

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About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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