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Judge: Clark County liable for clearing out homeless camps

Judge Clark County liable for clearing out homeless camps

In an order issued Friday, Tacoma’s Judge Robert Bryan determined Clark County’s road crews ignored the lawful rights of over six destitute citizens when they men were thrown out of their tarps and canopies. Cookers, medications, documentation and photos were destroyed during the regular sweeps which happened between 2012 and 2014. While settlement talks are planned, a trial date is scheduled for October to decide how much, in damages, the county must repay.

“The only indication of the event in the account is the County workers took everything that was unattended and then destroyed the property; notwithstanding of whether the property was, in fact, abandoned,” the judge wrote.

Bryan refused to promptly rule on the appeals by two campers, as he claimed it wasn’t obvious who seized their possessions.

Encampment sweeps have become controversial as government officials nationally are struggling with increased occurrences of homelessness. A story by the Seattle Times found that notwithstanding attempts by some state workers to give notice, the clean-ups were ill-planned and campers lost their belongings.

Lawsuits have been filed in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Denver and other municipalities by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocates.

“It’s vital to recognize that persons who are displaced have rights, embracing the benefit of due process,” Dough Honig, an ACLU spokesman said. “While the individuals’ belongings might not have a large financial value, they can be important to the persons without shelter.”

Although the ACLU branch was not directly linked to the Clark County suit, it and different civil rights organizations have been urging Seattle to modify its handling of the encampments. A current case in Boise, Idaho motivated the U.S. Justice Department to warn in a court filing, “If an individual truly has nowhere to go, the implementation of the anti-camping statute criminalizes that person for being destitute.”

In 2012, the Clark County Department of Corrections implemented a policy that said work crews were to clean up camps immediately if abandoned. If they hadn’t been abandoned, the workers were to give a one-hour notice that the residents had to vacate.

In reality, the crews didn’t care about the property and its status — abandoned or not. One crew director, declared in an affidavit that if his employees protested that a campsite seemed to be occupied, he directed it be cleared out regardless.

A few had left to get a meal at a nearby shelter and returned only to find their belongings gone. Amid the things taken were dentures, a photo of a dead girl and a variety of legal documents including Social Security papers and papers for disability insurance.

Terry Ellis, one camper, left a rucksack on a bench as he helped a female whose vehicle had stopped running. Despite Ellis being within sight when the crew arrived, the workers took it while ignoring his reason for leaving it.

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