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Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Homeless Residents in Fresno
by posted by Mike Rhodes
Wednesday Nov 22nd, 2006 7:35 PM
A victory for the homeless in Fresno
Press Release

For Immediate Release
PRESS CONTACTS:
Stella Richardson: cell 415-845-3042, ACLU-NC
Alexandra Gross, Oren Sellstrom: 415/543-9444, LCCR

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Homeless Residents in Fresno

Preliminary Injunction Will be Issued Barring City from Destroying the Property of Homeless Residents

FRESNO -A federal judge announced today his intention to issue a preliminary injunction stopping the City of Fresno from unlawfully destroying the personal property of thousands of homeless residents. The lawsuit, Kincaid v. City of Fresno, was filed in October and claims that the City has been violating the constitutional rights of homeless people by seizing and immediately destroying their personal property. Last month, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting this practice. Today’s ruling will remain in effect until the case goes to trial or is settled.

The City has carried out numerous raids of areas where homeless people live, destroying their personal belongings, according to the complaint filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the ACLU of Northern California and the law firm of Heller Ehrman, LLP. The judge found that in these raids city workers unlawfully destroy clothing, medication, tents and blankets, as well as irreplaceable personal possessions such as family photographs, personal records and documents. The raids are carried out by Fresno's Police and Sanitation workers, who use bulldozers and garbage trucks to seize tents and shopping carts full of personal belongings, usually crushing them on the spot, often with the homeless owners watching and protesting.

To read more visit http://www.aclunc.org



###

Alexandra Gross
Communications Coordinator
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
131 Steuart Street, Suite 400
San Francisco, CA 94105

Tel: 415-543-9444
Fax: 415-543-0296
agross [at] lccr.com

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by posted by Mike Rhodes
(MikeRhodes [at] Comcast.net) Thursday Nov 23rd, 2006 9:58 AM
Fresno's homeless win round in court
Judge, mayor trade tough talk over city's property seizures.
By John Ellis / The Fresno Bee
11/23/06 04:38:18

A federal judge Wednesday blasted Fresno for destroying personal property when it clears away homeless encampments and ordered a halt to the practice.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger said the city's policy of immediately destroying the belongings of homeless people during sweeps if they are not present to claim them violates their constitutional rights. He called it "dishonest" and "intentionally disparaging."

Wanger also didn't buy the city's argument that storing items for owners to claim later is impractical and expensive.

"That is — I'll be charitable — disingenuous," Wanger said.

Later in the day, defiant City Hall leaders said they would appeal the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, if the City Council agrees.

"The tone and tenor of [Wanger's] comments were troubling," said City Manager Andy Souza. He said Wanger "moved past a disagreement to editorializing. That was difficult."

In a written statement, Mayor Alan Autry was even more blunt: "This is yet another example of a judge making decisions based on limited, skewed and false information. These cavalier rulings continue to compromise not only the health of this community but the health of the homeless as well."

Autry went on to say, "It would behoove Judge Wanger and benefit this community greatly, if he wishes to continue to express his personal opinion rather than judge, to venture out of his robe and chamber occasionally, enter the real world and find out the real truth."

Wanger's half-hour-long oral ruling followed more than three days of testimony on the matter.

The hearing came after six homeless Fresno residents filed a federal lawsuit against the city last month, alleging that work crews illegally confiscated and destroyed their personal property when they tore down makeshift settlements this year.

"It's a beginning," homeless resident Alphonso Williams said of Wanger's decision. The city "did a lot of damage to people. Maybe this will make a change in the city for the better."

The lawsuit was filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California on behalf of the six homeless residents. It seeks a permanent ban on the removal of personal belongings during similar city actions, a judgment that the practice violates state and federal constitutional provisions and unspecified monetary damages for destruction of property.

Wanger had already issued a temporary order requiring Fresno to keep personal belongings so homeless residents can reclaim them. Since that order, the city has not conducted any sweeps.

His Wednesday order is more permanent in nature. Known as a preliminary injunction, it will be in place until the matter is resolved, either through a trial or a settlement between the city and the homeless residents. Also pending is a decision on whether the suit will attain class-action status representing all Fresno's homeless in circumstances similar to those of plaintiffs named in the suit.

Wanger stressed that his ruling Wednesday does not stop Fresno from conducting the sweeps. It only stops the city from destroying personal property unless it is contraband.

Souza had testified Friday that the city could not afford to store belongings after makeshift homeless settlements are torn down.

On Wednesday, however, he said Fresno "will bear that extra financial burden" to catalog and store items seized in future sweeps. He said it is more important to protect the health and safety of city residents than to halt the sweeps because of storage costs.

Both sides offered several witnesses over the course of the hearing, but key testimony came from Fresno police specialist Reynaud Wallace, who was a central figure in the homeless sweeps and an architect of the city's policy to destroy personal items immediately if the owner wasn't present.

Wanger dubbed the city's policy "Wallace's Rule."

The judge didn't fault Wallace or find his actions "malicious," but said Wallace had a "woefully mistaken understanding of the law" and nobody in authority above him "bothered to do the legal analysis" required.

City officials had testified they offered warnings — both written and oral — that sweeps were pending. They also testified that removing and cataloging items puts city workers at risk because they could be pricked by used needles.

Wanger dismissed both arguments.

He said the city offered as evidence just one document warning of a sweep — and the day it listed for the sweep was incorrect. On the dangers of being pricked, he said the evidence showed just one incident in 50 sweeps.

He also said a city with firefighters trained in hazardous-materials containment and police officers who seize methamphetamine labs surely could find a way to safely handle the belongings of homeless people.

The next step for Autry and Souza is seeking City Council approval to appeal Wanger's decision. It could be a tough road. Already, two council members say they are against an appeal.

"Let it go," said Council Member Henry T. Perea. "The judge has made his ruling, and I'm OK with that."

Perea said an appeal would only serve as a distraction to the larger social issues of poverty and homelessness that the city needs to discuss.

Council Member Mike Dages said appealing Wanger's decision will cost city taxpayers more than storing personal belongings seized from the homeless. He suggested scaling back the sweeps and making them selective, targeting areas where the homeless are camped out illegally and interfering with businesses or residences.

"I don't really see the purpose of appealing," he said. "It's expensive. Storing the stuff can't be that bad."
The reporter can be reached at jellis [at] fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6320.

///////////////////////////

Fresno ordered to stop destroying homeless people's propertyBy OLIVIA MUNOZ, Associated Press Writer
Updated Thursday, November 23, 2006, 12:35 AM)

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - The city must stop seizing and destroying homeless people's property without warning while a civil rights lawsuit winds its way through court, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday, saying the city's policy regarding homeless people's property is "dishonest and demeaning" to them.
"Persons cannot be punished because of their status," Wanger said, before issuing his ruling. "They cannot be denied their constitutional rights because of their appearance, because they are impoverished, because they are squatters, because they are, in effect, voiceless."
The suit - filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights on behalf of six people - claims police and sanitation workers violated the rights of the city's homeless over the last three years by defining their property as trash and bulldozing their encampments.
Homeless advocates said Wednesday's ruling would help cement homeless people's property rights.
"This is very significant in protecting not just the rights of homeless people in Fresno, but nationally," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "It's the court saying, 'Yes, there are legal rights, constitutional rights that are at issue here and this case needs to go forward.'"
James Betts, an attorney for the city, argued that forcing Fresno to log and store belongings seized in the "cleanups" would be a burden because the city doesn't have the space, money or the manpower to handle the volume of items.
Estimates of the number of people living on Fresno's streets range from about 500 to just under 8,900. Wanger's order blocks the city from raiding their tent towns and destroying their belongings until the case goes to trial, or reaches a settlement.
Whether they squat in city parks or sleep in makeshift dwellings next to train tracks, homeless people in Fresno live in fear that their things - many "critical to their survival" - will be destroyed without warning, said Paul Alexander, who argued the case for the plaintiffs. Items of sentimental value also get destroyed in the sweep, he said.
"When they end up on the street, they still have their family photos, they still have their grandmother's wedding ring, and those are just as precious in a tent as they are anywhere else," Alexander said in closing arguments Wednesday.
Charlene Clay, one of the six plaintiffs, said city officials took her asthma medicine, false teeth and her only pictures of her deceased granddaughter in a raid earlier this year.
"All I can do now is close my eyes and remember what my granddaughter used to look like," said Clay, 48, who has lived in a tent under a freeway for the past six months. "I couldn't get any medicine for a week."
City officials throughout the hearing described homeless encampments as safety hazards, a nuisance and hotbeds of crime.
"We see evidence of drug use, we see human feces, we see other materials that we would be concerned about," Capt. Greg Garner testified last week. "If someone says this is my property, they're allowed to keep it."
But the judge said city workers took people's belongings without notice and did not give property owners an opportunity to claim their goods.
On a recent afternoon at an encampment near the Fresno Rescue Mission, a Christian drop-in center, several people said city workers took their things even when they claimed them, sometimes even after they stuffed their pockets with their most prized items.
Pamela Kincaid, 51, the suit's lead plaintiff, said Wednesday she felt vindicated by the decision, since she lost all her possessions in a raid.
"It feels good," she said. "I didn't worry. I already knew what was right and had hope."
---
Associated Press Writer Garance Burke contributed to this story
by Ann G
Friday Nov 24th, 2006 9:59 AM
Mike you are incredible.
Thank you for your journalism on the attack on the Homeless. Thank you to those who are Homeless who are brave and courageous to tell their story. Thank you to the advocates who work to battle the evil in men's heart's who currently run the city of Fresno. Thank you to the activists who work with the homeless. Only for the grace of God have we not become Homeless.
*** I hope a big benefit can be organized that will bring in celebraties who will give their name and money so this story can be exposed and the evil action by the city officials can be exposed. Mayor Autry, and Chief Dyer like to have their weekly prayer meetings, and several articles have been written about their "Christianity" but it takes more then saying you are a Christian and praying. "They will know we are Christians by are deeds". The city officials have shown us their form or Christianity by their deeds and it is not Christ like at all.

I hope a group can organize a large benefit.

Here in Minneapolis, the city works hard to eradicate Homeless. I will be sharing this story of Fresno with many others and hope they can give some hope. I wish the Fresno Alliance paper was the main paper in Fresno since the Fresno Bee does not give the whole story nor does it give the personal stories of the Homeless.

I think if this story was put in every church bulletin and was given to each person as they walked out of church it might make some think of why they go to Church in the 1st place.
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