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Class-action lawsuit says D.C. is destroying belongings of homeless

A sign posted at the entry to an outdoor encampment of a homeless person in D.C., asking for the return of personal items.
A sign posted at the entry to an outdoor encampment of a homeless person in D.C., asking for the return of personal items. (Exhibit in U.S. District Court case/Courtesy of U.S. District Court)
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A group of homeless people — with the help of a high-powered team of attorneys — has filed a class-action lawsuit against the D.C. government, alleging that city workers are improperly throwing out their belongings during sweeps of street encampments.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asserts that the city government and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) are violating the 4th Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

It comes as the nation’s capital is struggling with one of the highest rates of homelessness of any U.S. city, and draws attention to the most visible facet of that problem: the plight of men and women who live on the street.

The named plaintiffs are Shanel Proctor and Charlaine Braxton, who say they sleep in tents near Union Station. They are being represented by attorneys from Covington & Burling, one of Washington’s most prestigious law firms, and are requesting that their case be certified as a class-action suit on behalf of D.C.’s homeless.

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The lawsuit alleges that District government workers have ignored a city protocol requiring that possessions confiscated during the clearing of homeless encampments be stored for up to 60 days so the items can be retrieved by their owners.

Instead, the suit asserts, the city “has followed a consistent practice of destroying unattended belongings whenever the owner is absent for some or all of a clearing,” including “tents and other shelters, bicycles, blankets, clothing, identification documents, medications, Social Security cards, medical and court records, family photographs, letters, and other personal belongings.”

Such actions put the homeless “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. Proctor and Braxton are seeking an injunction against the District to prevent further destruction of homeless people’s belongings.

Sean Barry, communications director for HyeSook Chung, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in a written statement that the city cleared encampments “in a manner which is respectful of individuals experiencing homelessness and those individuals’ personal property” and that encampments are cleared because of “real security, public health and safety concerns.”

Attached as exhibits to the lawsuit are reports from the D.C. Department of Human Services that appear to acknowledge that items cleared from encampments were destroyed. Also attached is a photograph of a cardboard sign, hung on a makeshift shelter at K and 26th Streets NW and apparently directed to city cleaning crews: “I have very little, as is. Please try to restrain from taking any more.”

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Other cities and counties — especially in Western states where outdoor encampments tend to be larger and more widespread — have found themselves mired in litigation over their efforts to sweep the homeless from the streets.

Families, who don’t typically sleep outside, make up the bulk of Washington’s homeless. But hundreds of others, most of them single adults, still live on the street, especially during warmer months. Shelters and short-term housing exist for such people, but they can be hard to access and are considered outdated in the services they provide.

The city’s annual homeless count in January 2017 found an estimated 897 people on the street. City officials and homeless advocates say that figure may have been unreliably high because of unseasonably warm weather that discouraged people from seeking shelter. In 2016, the estimate was 318, and the year before that, 544.

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