As discussion of the city of Seattle’s cleanups of unauthorized homeless encampments heats up, the disposal and storage of campers’ personal property is proving to be a thorny issue. The city’s procedures, outlined in the 2008 Multi-Departmental Administrative Rule (MDAR), lay out guidelines for city employees conducting the sweeps, but many homelessness advocates worry that the procedures aren’t being followed correctly, or that, even when they are, campers are still losing their valuables.
“In order to deprive someone of a property interest, there needs to be due process. At a minimum, due process involves adequate notice,” said Yuri Rudensky, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services’ Economic Justice Project. He noted that failing to provide adequate notice could constitute a violation of campers’ 14th Amendment rights.
The city is required by the MDAR to notify campers 72 hours before a cleanup, but some worry that certain encampments still aren’t receiving proper notice. The MDAR allows city workers to cleanup encampments without notice by posting a permanent warning if the site has been swept three times within 60 days. It also does not require the city to offer notice to camps with three or fewer tents.
During a Jan. 19 Seattle City Council briefing on the sweep procedures, Chris Potter, director of facility services in the city’s Department of Financial and Administrative services, assured the council that the city had shifted its policy to require that the specific time and date of sweeps be posted. He also noted that the city hadn’t used the repeat sweep tool to waive its posting requirement because it hadn’t swept any camps more than three times in 60 days.
Even with notice, some campers fail to appear. The process for sorting and storing those campers’ property is another major area of concern for advocates.
“After reading case law, it’s my belief that the MDAR is unconstitutional,” said Roger Franz, a board member of All Home King County. “You cannot remove someone’s belongings without giving them the opportunity to get them back.”
According to the MDAR, any items of value are saved and stored at the Seattle Department of Transportation’s Sign and Signal shop in SoDo. Campers returning to find their belongings are missing are left with the phone number of the city’s Customer Service Bureau and instructed in English and Spanish to call for further instructions.
At the Jan. 19 briefing, Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez questioned campers’ ability to recover their things armed only with a phone number.
“I want to register a concern about how we notify people that their belongings have been taken,” she said. “We’re talking about folks who don’t have cell phones, so the number that you post may not be one they could actually call, certainly not easily.”
Also at issue is the process in which the city workers determine what is valuable and what is trash. The MDAR dictates that any item over $25 be saved. Items valued at $100 or more are also required to be posted online or in a newspaper of record.
Items worth less than $25 aren’t always discarded outright. The MDAR instructs city workers to save items such as photographs, skateboards, medicine and cookware. The MDAR reads: “When in doubt, keep it.”
However, the MDAR also instructs workers to discard anything that appears to be a hazard. Potter said city workers will clean up anything that poses a health risk regardless of value. For example, if the city workers see a tent with needles inside, they would throw the tent and everything inside away.
At a special roundtable meeting of the city’s Human Services and Public Health Committee on Feb. 5, homelessness advocates bemoaned the practice of discarding property.
“It sometimes takes us a year to get a young person an ID, and when it’s thrown in the garbage it takes us another year,” said Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant said the city’s practice of discarding things based on monetary value is a problem.
“The value is not the market value, it’s what you value,” she said. “If you’re homeless, that’s all you have and the value to you is extremely high.”