Six people experiencing homelessness sued the city of Puyallup and Pierce County last week claiming that the city had violated their constitutional rights by improperly confiscating and destroying their possessions during sweeps of homeless encampments.
In the suit, filed by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and private firm Perkins Coie LLP, the plaintiffs say that city officials swept encampments with little to no warning and destroyed property without making offers of storage. In several cases, this resulted in the loss of crucial medications, which took up to a month to replace, as well as paperwork, government identification and family photos.
According to the plaintiffs, these tactics violate constitutional protections against search and seizure and of due process, as well as the city of Puyallup’s own rules governing homeless encampment sweeps.
“Our plaintiffs cannot afford housing and have no option but to live outside. Yet the city repeatedly orders them to leave their tents or other outdoor homes without offering them a place to go or any way to secure their belongings, or simply bulldozes the property when the owners are not there,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in a press release.
In some respects, the lawsuit is similar to one filed against the city of Seattle by a coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project. In that suit, plaintiffs held that their belongings had been improperly taken and destroyed despite city policies around the storage and return of such items.
Ultimately, a federal judge refused to order the city of Seattle to stop sweeping people as the lawsuit continued through the courts and also denied the plaintiffs’ bid to make it a class-action lawsuit.
Puyallup and eastern Pierce County have no shelters open year round, according to the lawsuit, and the city provides no direct services to people without housing. One overnight shelter run by local churches has a capacity of 70, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement to the News Tribune, a Pierce County spokesperson said that the county provides notice before cleanups and contracts with teams to connect residents to services.
As the homelessness crisis in urban spaces across the United States has continued to worsen, advocates have relied on the courts to clarify and protect the rights of people experiencing homelessness to survive in public spaces. Many activities that are legal when conducted in the comfort of one’s own home, like sitting down, are technically illegal for homeless people, for whom the only place to do so is a sidewalk.
The courts have been merciful at times. Most recently a panel of judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the city of Boise, Idaho could not criminalize people for sleeping outside if the city didn’t provide a reasonable alternative. Here in Seattle, the courts ruled in favor of Steven Long, a vehicle resident, affirming that the city could not charge him high fees to release his truck from impound.
Additionally, a Washington state court found that even when camping illegally, people experiencing homelessness have a right to privacy. What any of these rulings mean for Puyallup, though, remains to be seen.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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