The city clears hundreds of homeless encampments each year.
The city clears hundreds of homeless encampments each year. HG

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington will be in court again today trying to stop the City of Seattle from seizing homeless people's belongings during sweeps of tent encampments.

As part of an ongoing lawsuit against the city, the ACLU is asking a federal judge to order the city and the Washington State Department of Transportation to stop seizing homeless people's property unless authorities have "an objectively reasonable belief" that the property is an immediate health or safety threat or is abandoned, contraband, or evidence of a crime. U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez will hear arguments from the ACLU, the city, and WSDOT today.

In its suit against the city and WSDOT, the ACLU represents several people who have been or are currently homeless. The group argues the city and state take people's belongings without sufficient notice or a good process for getting it back. That, the ACLU argues, violates homeless people's constitutional rights and can deprive them of important belongings like paperwork and medication. The ACLU is also asking the court to certify the lawsuit as a class action. The ACLU says it does not want to stop the city from collecting garbage, addressing immediate health and safety issues, or offering services to people living outside.

The ACLU made a similar argument in February, but Martinez rejected it, saying the group had not adequately proved that continuing the sweeps as they were would do irreparable harm. At that time, the ACLU said the city had participated in 733 encampment sweeps from January 2015 to April 2016 but had only stored belongings 55 times. The city disputed those numbers.

A recent count found 8,522 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, 45 percent of them unsheltered, meaning they live in tents, doorways, and vehicles.

"Not since the Great Depression have so many people been forced to live outdoors in our city," the ACLU said in a statement. "By seizing and frequently discarding items that these individuals own and that are essential to their daily living, the city and WSDOT are worsening their circumstances."

In response to the ACLU's motion, the city claims it is doing more than enough to protect the rights of people living outside when it forces them to leave encampments.

"The City admits that the current homelessness crisis raises complicated choices, and some persons oppose while others support clean-ups—but the mere fact of cleans-ups does not violate the Constitution," lawyers for the City of Seattle write in response to the ACLU's request.

The city says its current protocols for clearing encampments offer written notice of sweeps at least 72 hours in advance as well as outreach and offers of resource and shelter. The city says its workers sort unclaimed belongings and then store and deliver those belongings. As part of an effort to change the way it does sweeps, the city promised in January to begin storing people's belongings for 60 days and delivering them to people who've been cleared from encampments. (During a sweep in March, city officials told The Stranger that practice was not in place at that sweep.)

"The City has responded to the current crisis with a compassionate and comprehensive approach," reads the city's response to the ACLU's motion. "The City is devoting significant resources to the immediate needs of unhoused persons, while working to address the root causes of homelessness and emphasizing long-term solutions."

I'll be at today's hearing and will have more updates this afternoon.

UPDATE: Arguing before the judge today, lawyers for the ACLU painted the city’s encampment sweeps process as chaos unmitigated by well-meaning city policies. According to the ACLU’s analysis of city data, the city cleared 136 encampments in eight months, or about one every other day. Of those, 35 percent received no notice and half of them resulted in no storage of people’s belongings, said Todd Williams, an attorney for a private firm working with the ACLU on the case.

“It’s a story of inconsistent and unpredictable processes depriving people of essential property,” Williams said, asking the judge for a preliminary injunction to stop the city from seizing property unless it is illegal or poses a safety or health risk.

Still, lawyers arguing for the city and state claimed an injunction would prevent them from addressing safety and health risks at encampments. On computer monitors in the courtroom, they showed photos of fires, trash, and needles at homeless encampments.

“This is the type of thing that we face on a regular ongoing basis,” said Matthew Segal, a private attorney arguing on behalf of the city. Segal said the city offers outreach and “alternative shelter” to anyone who is forced to leave an encampment. Advocates have disputed whether those offers of services and shelter are sufficient.

The judge, who has appeared sympathetic to the city’s case in the past, gave little indication today of how he would rule. He said it would likely be a week or longer before he issues a decision.

“I don’t think any secret that the court is sympathetic to the plight of the plaintiffs [the ACLU and its clients] in this case, but there are some very interesting legal issues,” Martinez said.