Another suit filed to prevent Los Angeles from seizing property belonging to the homeless

With over 40,000 homeless living on its streets, Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the country.
With over 40,000 homeless living on its streets, Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the country.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

The city of Los Angeles faces its fifth lawsuit in the past 20 years over the seizure of homeless people's belongings in street cleaning sweeps, following recent crackdowns in Venice.

Santa Monica civil rights attorney Carol Sobel filed a legal claim against the city Thursday after successfully suing the city in the last three cases over the same issue in Skid Row, the most densely populated homeless area in L.A.

Sobel said she is seeking $4,000 in damages each for 11 people who lost possessions including medicine, wallets with cash, and legal and personal documents in a March 7 sweep.

"It's just extremely disappointing that this city won't take a different approach to poor people who don't have a place to live," she said.

A spokesman for the city attorney's office did not return a phone call for comment Friday, but the city has defended its right to keep streets clean, saying bulky items on sidewalks violate local ordinances and cause blight and hazards to health and safety.

The latest case is the first contesting street cleanups outside Skid Row in another area of Los Angeles that is a hub for transients, especially young drifters.

The spate of sweeps started several months ago after the city imposed a nighttime curfew in the Venice beach area. That caused homeless people to decamp to sidewalks, and local residents to lodge numerous complaints about drug use and hygiene issues. The city has responded with a crackdown.

Homeless activist David Busch said his cart of worldly possessions, including a laptop computer, was taken in the March 7 sweep, but he managed to get the items back from a public works yard. Many people, however, were not able to retrieve their items because they did not have bus fare or could not arrange a ride to the yard, Busch said, adding that about 65 people are sleeping on the sidewalk.

The issue came to a head Thursday, he said, when about 30 homeless people and activists stood guard over belongings while sanitation workers arrived with trucks to conduct another sidewalk sweep.

"We were standing there next to every homeless person's property," Busch said. "We had quite a dramarama."

After City Councilman Bill Rosendahl intervened, the sanitation trucks left, Sobel said.

Rosendahl's office said he could not comment because of the pending litigation.

Sobel noted that although the previous cases dealt specifically with Skid Row, they are based on federal law so they apply to the entire city. She said she plans to use the new case to obtain a citywide ban on homeless property seizures so it is clear to city officials.

The city is appealing a federal judge's ruling last year in a Skid Row case that bars sanitation workers from picking up possessions from sidewalks without notice and without telling residents where they can reclaim their property.

In many cases, mentally ill people lost their worldly goods when they left their bundles unattended while they went to shower or eat at a nearby shelter.

The first case in Los Angeles over homeless property seizures was filed in 1987, which the city also lost. Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the nation.

This story has been updated.