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City of Los Angeles asks U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on homeless belongings

by AirTalk®

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Desmond Williams never leaves his bags unattended on Skid Row in Los Angeles because he knows the police could come take them. He was there on February 28, 2013. Brian Watt/KPCC

Skid row in downtown Los Angeles has long been the subject of controversy, but a more recent dispute regarding a possible health threat in the homeless community may be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, the city of Los Angeles will ask the high court to overturn a lower court ruling preventing indiscriminate seizure and destruction of belongings that homeless people temporarily leave unattended on public sidewalks. The city is citing an immediate public health threat, an outbreak of tuberculosis, as cause for sterilization of the area. If the Supreme Court takes up the case, the outcome could have wide-ranging implications for cities across the nation struggling with how to handle homeless citizens’ rights.

The legal battle began when eight homeless people accused LA city workers, escorted by police, of confiscating and destroying items the homeless plaintiffs had left unattended while they used the restroom, filled water jugs or appeared in court. Their possessions that were seized included identification, medications, cellular phones and toiletries. In some cases the plaintiffs were prohibited from retrieving their belongings.

Last September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the belongings that homeless leave on city sidewalks for short periods of time may be taken only if the items pose an immediate threat to public safety or health or serve as evidence of a crime. The court also stipulated that the city cannot bluntly destroy the belongings and must inform owners about how to retrieve the items. Regarding the decision, Andy Bales, the leader of the Union Rescue Mission on skid row, said to the Los Angeles Times, “We never, ever had to battle that before the injunction, which has taken skid row back at least eight years to before all the improvements.” He added, “it has emboldened people to leave their stuff everywhere.”

Does the outbreak of tuberculosis on skid row qualify as an immediate threat to public health? Does seizure of homeless people’s belongings effectively prevent the spread of diseases? Should the U.S. Supreme Court take up this case?

Andy Bales, CEO, Union Rescue Mission

Carol Sobel, Board Member, National Lawyers Guild; Attorney representing several homeless individuals in the case

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