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Seattle sued over homeless encampment sweeps

A new lawsuit is trying to halt the city’s efforts to conduct sweeps at homeless encampments. It argues that current practices violate people's basic rights. (Photo: KOMO News file)

SEATTLE - A new lawsuit is trying to halt the city’s efforts to conduct sweeps at homeless encampments. It argues that current practices violate people's basic rights.

Seattle has conducted hundreds of homeless encampment sweeps since November 2015, when Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency. However, many of those campers claim their belongings are routinely scooped up and thrown away.

“I've lost about eight sleeping bags, ton of pillows, clothes,” said Amanda Clark, who on Thursday night was waiting to enter a city shelter.

Now Clark has the ACLU and other homeless advocates fighting on her behalf. A lawsuit will try to force the city to halt all sweeps - or clean-ups - until civil and property rights are protected.

“Regardless of where you live, regardless of how much money you make, you still get the protection of the constitution,” said Breanne Schuster, one of the ACLU attorneys working on the case.

Tim Harris, founding director of Real Change, said even his vendors have had stuff seized and tossed in the trash by city crews.

“You're losing important papers, you are losing prescriptions, you're losing family photos,” Harris said. “It’s the last vestiges of your life that you're hanging onto."

The mayor's office declined comment, but pointed to its “Bridging the Gap” program which calls for posting notice of upcoming sweeps, then storing any personal items seized and letting people know how they can reclaim it.

Despite those assurances, the ACLU said the problems continue.

“They're still having their belongings taken. They're still not getting adequate notice,” Schuster said.

The state Department of Transportation is also being sued. An agency spokesperson said that while safety is their first priority, they "continue to work with agency partners, social service providers and outreach groups to provide compassionate outreach."

Clark, who has been living on the streets on and off for five years, said she's trying to get permanent shelter and believes these sweeps don't help anyone.

“How would they feel if I broke into their house and smashed all their stuff," Clark asked.

Recently the mayor has stated that clean ups are needed to address public safety and trash problems. Murray’s office is in the process of finalizing the protocols contained in their "Bridging the Gap" plan. Plaintiffs said it remains to be seen if it addresses the concerns raised in this lawsuit.

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