A lawyer representing the advocacy group First They Came for the Homeless sent an open letter to the Berkeley City Council Ad-Hoc Committee on Homeless Solutions on Friday, alleging that the city has consistently violated unhoused residents’ legal protections and constitutional rights during homeless encampment disbandments.
EmilyRose Johns, a lawyer from the firm Siegel & Yee who is representing First They Came for the Homeless, said if the city does not change its policy surrounding homeless encampment disbandment, the group plans to file a class-action lawsuit. Since receiving the letter, First They Came for the Homeless has scheduled a Feb. 22 meeting with the mayor and City Council members where they will discuss the various allegations.
Between October and December 2016, a traveling homeless encampment organized by First They Came for the Homeless was disbanded 17 times, the letter states. Among several complaints, Johns alleges that Berkeley Police Department and city officials discard or confiscate homeless residents’ valuable belongings like wallets and cellphones during disbandments, violating citizens’ constitutional protection from the seizure of property without due process.
City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said in an email that before disbandments are initiated, homeless residents are generally given hours or days notice to collect their things and leave.
“At the time of an enforcement of illegal lodging on public property, City staff always ask people to move their belongings on their own,” Chakko said. “If there are any items that no one appears to be claiming, staff give those who have been illegally lodging the chance to claim those items (from storage).”
Homeless activists alleged that once the disbandments begin, however, they are given 15 minutes to collect all of their belongings and have to leave the rest of their items behind.
Items left behind are stored in the city’s Transfer Station where homeless residents can arrange to pick them up. Johns stressed that it’s difficult for homeless residents to coordinate the pick-up of their items or make it to the Transfer Station at all because they often lack access to phones and transportation.
Additionally, items at the city’s Transfer Station are stored outside in an open container so they are often damaged by rain, Johns said.
Homeless resident Mike Lee said his laptop, cellphone and tent, among other items, were all lost or damaged after being taken during disbandments.
“To the outside world this looks like a minor injustice, but these issues are huge to the people affected by them,” Johns said, noting that after Lee’s boots were taken during a disbandment he was forced to wear flip flops during inclement weather for several weeks.
Johns added that the residents of the homeless encampment are hoping that their meeting with the city will result in a weatherproof storage method for collected items, more time for homeless residents to collect their belongings and, ideally, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that First They Came for the Homeless will meet with the mayor Feb. 23. In fact, the group will meet with the mayor Feb. 22.