Anaheim Sued Over Seizure of Homeless Peoples’ Property

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC contributing photographer

Hundreds of tents, makeshift shelters and other belongings of the homeless community line the bike trail along the Santa Ana Riverbed near Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Wednesday, May 17, 2017.

A group of advocates for homeless people have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Anaheim, alleging the city seizes and confiscates the belongings of homeless people without providing adequate due process and options for storage and retrieval.

Like nearly all Orange County cities, Anaheim has an anti-camping ordinance and other laws that prohibit sleeping, camping and loitering in public. People who violate those laws can be ticketed and have their possessions confiscated.

The complaint, filed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County in federal court Wednesday, April 11, on behalf of the advocates, cites multiple instances when, it says, Anaheim officials seized and threw away the belongings of homeless people without prior warning.

When the homeless people went to retrieve their belongings at city-designated storage centers, they found possessions like tents and blankets were discarded by officials while cell phones, food stamp cards and electronics were missing, according to the lawsuit.

“By seizing and destroying essential items, including tents, tarps and blankets, Defendant’s actions have created an immediate danger to Plaintiffs’ and others’ health and safety by exposing them to the elements without adequate shelter or other means to survive,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order preventing the city from confiscating more belongings and a court order requiring the city inventory any seized belongings and replace items like blankets, tarps, tents and personal identification.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the People’s Homeless Task Force and three homeless people, comes amid two other federal lawsuits against the County of Orange which are likely to shape the county’s policies and immediate response to homelessness countywide.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is presiding over those two lawsuits, has threatened to suspend the enforcement of anti-camping laws in cities countywide if the county and cities fail to come up with adequate emergency shelter options for the homeless.

This latest lawsuit against Anaheim has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney.

Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said the city’s laws are intended to balance compassion with “a responsibility to keep our parks, streets and other public spaces safe and accessible to everyone.”

“We’re disappointed to hear about the lawsuit. Those mentioned have been offered or provided extensive help, including reunification with family, shelter and housing,” said Lyster. “We look forward to sharing all we’ve done to help those involved.”

Activists with the People’s Homeless Task Force have unsuccessfully lobbied the City Council for more than a year to rescind a city anti-camping ordinance.

Some attorneys have hinted at potential litigation at previous council meetings, citing experiences where their homeless clients lost important belongings like medication, blankets and personal identification.

In separate injunctions, the courts have barred both the city of Los Angeles and county of Orange from confiscating the belongings of homeless people without sufficient notice and creating a place where impounded belongings can be recovered.

Anaheim officials said they generally have relaxed enforcement of the anti-camping law in recent years and shifted focus to providing outreach and services through a nonprofit contractor, CityNet.

Lyster said the city has clear guidelines for property that is abandoned, stored in public or booked during arrests.

“With property stored in public, we provide safekeeping and retrieval across Anaheim, along with outreach to help end homelessness. Our nonprofit partners can also help anyone collect property as part of their case management services,” Lyster said.

Anaheim has two locations where homeless people can store their belongings temporarily, one in West Anaheim and another near La Palma Park. When belongings are seized they are sent to a third site near downtown Anaheim, which until March was only open on Tuesdays. It is now open on Monday through Friday.

The lawsuit argues that despite those options, the city makes property “virtually unavailable” by failing to provide receipts, claim numbers or information about how to pick up their property.

“Thus, homeless individuals often spend days calling or visiting different police facilities inquiring about their property,” the complaint states.

Before the facility’s hours changed in March, because it was only open on Tuesdays, people often have to wait several days to retrieve their belongings.  They may also have to travel several miles to the storage sites, making it difficult or unfeasible for people to transport their belongings if they rely on public transportation, the lawsuit argues.

The complaint also argues that recent actions by the city have created further hardships for homeless people.

The city council recently decided to close the La Palma Check-In Center, which is operated by the nonprofit Mercy House, citing decreased usage of the facility and arguing funds would be better spent on other services for homeless people.

Lyster said the city is looking to open another storage center to replace the La Palma Check-In Center, although a location has yet to be decided.

On April 13, Anaheim forced a motel housing homeless people on behalf of the county “to evict residents suffering from severe, persistent mental illness, requiring their immediate relocation to a different motel outside city limits,” the lawsuit alleges.

A recent overhaul to the city’s permit parking policies also included a new prohibition on parking oversized vehicles on city streets.

“The City Council passed the ordinance despite hearing from homeless residents, who explained that they rely on their recreational vehicles as housing of last resort, and that this ordinance would prohibit them from parking, working and living in Anaheim,” the complaint states.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the downtown storage facility is only open on Tuesdays. That was true until March, when the city began operating the facility Monday through Friday.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.