By TJ Johnston
In all senses of the word, there has been a lot of movement from homeless people on the West Coast.
There have been move-along orders issued by cities to unsheltered people, as well as unhoused people moving to advocate for themselves.
But they have a long, tough road ahead. San Francisco police and other city workers continue to seize the property of unhoused and unsheltered residents, as we’ve documented in the Stolen Belonging project. Unfortunately this inhumane practice is being carried out in cities across the country. Oakland recently evicted and trashed the possessions of over 100 people from a vehicle lot despite resistance from locals. An unhoused Denver man sued the city when the police ticketed him for sleeping outside even though they knowingly had no shelter for him. And Las Vegas just passed additional laws banning homeless people from public property.
As cities throughout the western U.S. ratchet up police-centered responses to homelessness, unhoused people and their housed allies are awaiting a decision on a potentially precedent-setting case in Boise, Idaho.
The implications it would have can’t be overstated. For performing what are largely survival acts, homeless people are often punished by the criminal justice system. They also often lose their belongings in sweeps and are displaced from their communities. Yet, recent developments in several cities suggest that the arc for unhoused people might be bending towards justice, as the momentum for Stop the Sweeps and Right to Rest campaigns build across regions.
What has grown to become commonplace on San Francisco’s streets was captured on video on October 19: an unhoused woman in the Mission District returned from a trip to a public restroom only to find no fewer than two police officers and four Department of Public Works sanitation workers using three City vehicles to take away her tent.
What differed from other incidents was that the video went viral. As Taylor Ahlgren taped the incident in progress, he asked the police officers, “Is this legal?” It turns out that the City workers disregarded policy stating they can’t take away property without determining who it belongs to and whether it’s abandoned or not. Public Works staff are also obliged to “bag and tag” seized items and issue a receipt so that owners can reclaim their possessions.
A woman heard offscreen said she was sending the video and wanted to arrange a meeting with the Police and Public Works departments and “the supervisor.” It wasn’t clear if she meant any of the department supervisors or Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission District on the Board of Supervisors.
On a larger scale, an encampment of up to 120 vehicle dwellers on Wood Street in West Oakland was cleared last week. Several of the inhabitants were moved from the 4.5-acre site to curbside. The City of Oakland first issued “notices to tow” in October, but the residents rallied against the eviction on November 5, said Dayton Andrews, an organizer with United Front Against Displacement.
“This slowed down the city until [the City] ran out of money budgeted to pay the tow companies,” he said. “Now [the community is] writing a letter to the city of Oakland demanding this not happen again, that adequate housing alternatives be found for all residents, and for services to be expanded in the area until that time.”
Ironically, the site is reported to become a sanctioned parking site for vehicle dwellers, though will likely only have room for 60 vehicles – half of the number present before the eviction.
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, unhoused Berkeley residents marched to their city hall on October 23 after weeks of roadside camps were continually evicted by Caltrans. A row of tents by the University Avenue I-80 exit with the words “Where Do We Go” has become a symbol of the lack of resources — and perpetual dislocation— for Berkeley’s unsheltered population.
“We don’t have cell phones, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have toilets, we don’t have trash cans,” advocate Andrea Henson said into a bullhorn. “We are the most vulnerable. We’re going to be swept up, and we’re gonna stand here until someone speaks to us.”
Another speaker said, “We’re supposed to be a sanctuary city? Well, I want sanctuary.”
Caltrans, the state agency tasked with maintaining the highway, was heavily criticized a couple of years ago when its crews displaced a San Francisco encampment beneath an interchange.
Meanwhile in Denver, homeless activist Jerry Burton is challenging the city’s camping ban. Earlier this year, he was ticketed after he and other residents of the Jerr-E-Ville encampment moved twice in the same day.
By fighting the citation in court, Burton seeks to overturn the local ordinance on the grounds that it violates his right against cruel and unusual punishment and his right to equal protection under the law.
Several weeks of hearings and testimonies have already ensued, and the judge is expected to rule whether the ordinance is constitutional. If the case isn’t ruled in Burton’s favor, he could very well appeal.
On November 6, the city council of Las Vegas passed a tent ban and sit-lie law covering the downtown area. Setting up a tent or resting on the sidewalk has been made a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine or six-month jail term. The action drew national attention when Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro denounced the ordinance as criminalizing homelessness.
Before the council passed the ordinance on a 5-2 vote, about 50 people spoke against the measure to the body — compared with 15 from proponents. Unhoused resident Ron Moore joked that his housing status made him a repeat offender.
He was on a “four-city, three-state crime spree this year,” he said. “I confess that during my homelessness, I found myself tired, and sat down and even slept on the street.”
PROBABLE COURT ACTION
The flurry of cities’ and counties’ legislation imposing restrictions on homeless people’s activity could come to a head at the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue would be the Martin v. Boise case, where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have upheld previous court rulings stating that clearing encampments in cities without available shelter is unconstitutional. If the highest court in the land declines to hear the appeals of the City of Boise, or decides to hear the case and rule in favor of the homeless petitioners, all previous rulings will stand.
But several cities have also signed on to amicus briefs supporting Boise against the rights of unhoused residents. Nine member counties of the California State Association of Counties, including Los Angeles and Sacramento counties, endorsed Boise’s ordinance. So did 25 municipalities, including the City of Los Angeles.
Some local jurisdictions are creating temporary shelters, while at the same time crafting legislation that would comply with Martin v. Boise should that case be upheld.
As cities grasp for a quick fix to the decades-old problem of homelessness, community members and organizations are joining together to fight unjust laws and hold cities accountable for illegal confiscation and theft of unhoused folks’ property. That includes litigation — Fresno settled a lawsuit with community members in 2008 — and community organizing. Stolen Belonging is an example or such organizing: It is joining with the #SolutionsNotSweeps campaign, which is working in solidarity with the Services Not Sweeps coalition out of Los Angeles. For more information, visit stolenbelonging.org or follow Stolen Belonging on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.