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City Banned from Taking and Destroying Possessions on Skid Row

By Eric Richardson
Published: Friday, June 24, 2011, at 07:42AM
Central City East Check-In Center Eric Richardson / blogdowntown

The 500 storage bins at the Central City East Check-In Center offer a glimpse of the scale at stake in the issue of homeless possessions.

The City of Los Angeles faces severe restrictions in how it can pick up possessions left on the streets of Skid Row under the terms of an injunction reaffirmed on Thursday.

The case, filed by eight homeless individuals who say that the city took their belongings when they walked away for food, the bathroom or to appear in court, centers around Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims that the pick-ups violate protections against unreasonable seizure and the deprivation of property without due process.

The order did leave open the possibility of an acceptable program to store property taken off the streets and give individuals the right to come and retrieve it. The business community operates such a center in Skid Row, but it is currently "bursting at the seams," said Estela Lopez, head of the Central City East Association.

District Court Judge Philip S. Gutierrez did not mince words in shooting down the city's arguments that homeless individuals abandoned their property by walking away from them. In one part of the ruling, Gutierrez took that the city's attempt to apply several past cases as precedent, calling the logic "beyond comprehension."

In issuing the injunction, Gutierrez ruled that "Plaintiffs have clearly shown that they will likely succeed in establishing that the City seized and destroyed property that it knew was not abandoned."

While the city argued that it holds all possessions seized for 72 hours before destroying them, plaintiffs in the case testified that they had promptly gone to the city's dump site only to be told that their belongings had already been trashed.

Gutierrez' temporary restraining order, originally filed in April, forbids the city from "seizing property in Skid Row absent an objectively reasonable belief that it is abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime, or contraband," and requires that any property taken under that provision must be held for 90 days before being destroyed.

Lopez worries that the ruling is another step in forcing the community around Skid Row to put up with things that would be unacceptable elsewhere. "If a community -- not Skid Row but anywhere else in the city -- awakened to tons of mattresses, soiled clothing and debris on their sidewalks, the police would take it away," she said.

"It is only in Skid Row where the people who live and work in this 50 block area can not have the same service or expectation of sanitation that the rest of the people in the city have."

Lopez' group operates the Central City East Check-In Center, providing storage to hundreds of people on the streets of Skid Row in 20,000 square feet of donated warehouse space.

The facility recently expanded to 725 bins, and has been frequently cited as a model for other sites. Still, replication has been slow.

"In Los Angeles, we are the only one and we keep expanding," said Lopez. "CCEA has for years begged the city for an expansion of these types of centers citywide."

The facility costs the organization more than $100,000 per year, money that comes from assessments on neighborhood property owners. For the past few years, a grant from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has also offset costs.

Still, the need remains more than the facility can bear.

"We could double and triple it and it would not be enough," said Lopez.

Judge Gutierrez' Ruling (Download)


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