Finding A Home For The Homeless' Belongings

Cities have taken various approaches to dealing with property left out in public by the homeless. Many seize and destroy it, but some are trying to find ways to store and protect it.

Bill Siedhoff found an incident involving two homeless men in St. Louis last November "pretty disturbing." A group of park rangers approached the men and confiscated their belongings, taking them away to a waiting garbage truck.

"They were standing there when their personal possessions, including medicine, was destroyed in front of their eyes," recalls Siedhoff, the city's director of health and human services.

In response, Siedhoff and other officials developed a new policy, announced Friday by Mayor Francis Slay.

St. Louis now provides sturdy bags and waterproof identification tags to make it easier for homeless residents to store their stuff — and to retrieve it when it does get cleared away by the city.

"We keep an inventory and make arrangements for people to pick up whatever they've left behind," Siedhoff says.

'A Powerful Message'

It's an unusual policy. Cities are more likely to confiscate and destroy the property of the homeless than to monitor and store it.

It's part of a strategy — which also includes strict enforcement of laws banning camping and panhandling — "that makes it a crime for people to live in public spaces," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty.

"Communities have taken no care whatsoever of the personal property, and that sends a powerful message to the homeless that they should move on," says Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Los Angeles.

The ACLU and other groups have filed lawsuits against several cities that conduct property raids. They've met with some success, notably in Fresno, Calif., which in 2008 agreed to a $2.3 million settlement.

The park rangers in St. Louis appeared to be in violation of a 2005 settlement under which the city agreed not to destroy the personal property of any homeless person.

Clean Up Or Punishment?

"If you as a community cannot afford to properly house the individual and their possessions, you cannot act on that negligence by taking away a person's property," says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. That group, along with others, took the city of St. Petersburg, Fla., to court over the issue.

But last week, federal Judge Steven Merryday dismissed most of the accusations the advocacy groups had made against the city.

Two years ago, St. Petersburg had passed tougher new laws, as many cities have, in response to highly visible encampments. The area around City Hall itself had grown so unsightly that merchants complained customers were afraid.

But, assistant city attorney Joseph Patner says, "We didn't just pass this law and start putting out notices."

The city gives 36 hours' written notice before removing property, and it pays for a secure storage facility downtown with almost 200 bins where individuals can store their belongings.

"It's a balancing act in trying to make different groups of individuals happy to live within the city," says Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's manager of social services planning.

Avoiding A Mass Influx

Officials in other cities that have passed tough new ordinances also say their intention is not to punish or intimidate the homeless, but to come up with tools to prod both the homeless and city agencies to move them toward housing.

Partially in response to an ACLU lawsuit, police in Colorado Springs, Colo., had essentially stopped enforcing laws that addressed the homeless population about a year ago, giving city officials time to formulate new policies.

That led to a "mass influx of our homeless moving into our downtown area," according to Brett Iverson, a police officer with the city's homeless outreach team. About 350 people were camping along downtown creeks, prompting public health and safety concerns — and a new law.

The City Council last month approved an ordinance making public camping illegal and allowing police to confiscate property after offering warnings. Since it passed, the Colorado Springs homeless population has shrunk to about 125. A local foundation has come up with $100,000 to help pay for housing, and city agencies are making a more concerted effort to coordinate their services.

Enforcement: Not The Answer?

Tom Gallagher, the one member of the Colorado Springs City Council to vote against the ordinance, says it was too harsh. He says the city's cleanup contractor had been overly zealous about going into homeless camps and throwing out property, which might have looked like junk but often contained important personal documents.

"It's hard enough to get a job if you don't have an address," Gallagher says. "Try to get a job if you don't have an ID."

Colorado Springs police recognize that issuing tickets for failure to move property will serve little purpose. But Iverson says that the new law has become a stick that police and social service agencies can use to cajole and encourage the homeless to take positive steps toward finding housing, a job or substance abuse treatment.

"Enforcement isn't the answer," Iverson says. "Our goal in this whole thing is to get through this without writing one ticket, and we haven't yet." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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