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Homeless prevail in ruling on camps

City can't destroy their belongings

FRESNO, Calif. -- When city workers tore down her hillside encampment, Charlene Clay lost her asthma medicine, sleeping bags, and her only photos of her dead granddaughter.

The people living there weren't warned, she said. Within minutes, all that remained were the tire tracks of a dump truck, crumpled tents, and a few stray belongings.

"All I can do now is close my eyes and remember what my granddaughter used to look like," said Clay, 48. "I couldn't get any medicine for a week."

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights are suing the city on behalf of Clay and five others, saying police and sanitation workers violated the rights of the homeless for the last three years by defining their property as trash and bulldozing their encampments.

This week, they won a major victory.

US District Judge Oliver W. Wanger, calling the city's policy regarding homeless people's property "dishonest and demeaning," granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday that ordered the city to stop seizing and destroying homeless people's property without warning. The injunction will be in effect while the civil rights lawsuit winds through the courts.

"Persons cannot be punished because of their status," the judge said. "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."

City officials argued that the encampments are 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," Captain Greg Garner testified. "If someone says 'this is my property,' they're allowed to keep it."

But the judge said workers took people's belongings without notice and didn't give them an opportunity to claim their goods. He didn't accept city attorney James Betts's argument that Fresno doesn't have the space, money, or personnel to log and store belongings seized in the "cleanups."

"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."'

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.

"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," he said.

Clay and her husband became homeless this year when their apartment rent got too high. They couldn't afford the downpayment on a cheaper place, so they set up in the encampment, where they could still be together, she said. After the raid, they moved their tent under a freeway, but then that site was raided, too, she said.

"Wherever I go as a homeless person in the city of Fresno, the city of Fresno workers, accompanied by the Fresno Police Department, will come to take and destroy my personal possessions," Clay said.

Estimates of the number of homeless living on Fresno's streets vary, with advocates saying the numbers top 8,000. According to the plaintiffs, three primary homeless shelters in Fresno have room for about 225 people.

Wanger's order blocks the city from raiding tent towns and destroying homeless people's belongings until the case is resolved.

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