YAKIMA, Wash., Sept. 28 (UPI) -- Two local governments in Washington state are being sued by homeless people alleging officials unconstitutionally deprived them of their property following multiple sweeps of homeless camps that came with little or no advance notice.
The lawsuit against the city of Puyallup and Pierce County, in the Puget Sound region south of Seattle, was filed on behalf of six homeless people by the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The plaintiffs include a military veteran who says officials destroyed paperwork he needs to receive services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and his wife, who alleges her birth certificate, medication and other items were destroyed.
"Homelessness is a crisis across the country, but simply removing people from public view is not the solution," Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the center, said in a Sept. 19 news release. "Puyallup's approach is not only cruel, it is shortsighted, counterproductive and a waste of taxpayer dollars."
The lawsuit, filed Sept. 14 in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington, is the latest development in a homelessness crisis that has swept the West Coast in recent years as an unintended consequence of an economic boom leading to population growth, increased rents and low vacancy rates. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates nearly one-third of the U.S. homeless population in 2017 lived in Washington, Oregon and California.
Puyallup officials dismissed the allegations in a news release, saying residents of homeless camps are given "ample notice and sufficient time to collect and remove their belongings" when a removal is planned. City officials said the sweeps are only conducted "due to the clear presence of dangerous and unhealthy conditions" caused by accumulations of waste.
"The complaint contains false characterizations and numerous egregious misstatements of fact," the city said in the Sept. 21 release. "The city looks forward to correcting the record in this regard."
Puyallup officials said they direct the homeless to medical and other service providers, but Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney at the National Law Center, said the homeless removed from public places usually have nowhere else to stay.
"There are hundreds of unhoused people in the Puyallup community, and the city offers no year-round emergency shelter," Bauman said in a prepared statement.
Washington state residents make up about 2 percent of the nation's total population but the state had nearly 4 percent of the nation's homeless population in 2017, according to data from the Interagency Council on Homeless and the U.S. Census Bureau. California has by far the biggest homeless population in the nation at 134,000 people, nearly 25 percent of the nation's total homeless population.
The lawsuit deals with property issues similar to a lawsuit filed against the city of Seattle and the Washington Department of Transportation in 2017 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington that sought to halt officials from destroying homeless people's property while removing and cleaning up camps. That case is still pending in federal court.
Court rulings around the country on removing homeless camps have given local governments mixed messages on the constitutionality of such sweeps, especially when they involve removing the homeless from publicly owned land.
In March, a Washington state judge ruled the city of Seattle violated a homeless man's rights by impounding a truck that he owned and lived in after he refused to follow a parking enforcement officer's order to move it within 72 hours after he was given notice. The Superior Court judge ruled that the truck was legally the man's home and could not legally be towed, a legal victory for other homeless in Washington state living out of vehicles. The city of Seattle has appealed the ruling.
Some courts have determined it's unconstitutional to remove homeless encampments from public land without providing people an alternate location to reside, leading some municipalities to contract with service providers to create temporary camps with toilets, potable water and access to other resources. Citing legal concerns over sweeps in 2016, the city of Yakima, Wash., banned camping on all public property but allowed an encampment in a city-owned parking lot across the street from the city police department.
Puyallup officials say the city refers homeless people to resources and services before the camp cleanups and allocates funds to different organizations for providing emergency shelter and for homeless prevention services to at-risk individuals. The city also says it has one police officer dedicated as a liaison to the homeless community and pays a contractor to provide two full-time social workers conducting outreach with the city's homeless.
Ted Brackman, a member of the Puyallup Homeless Coalition and the founder of other local homeless outreach groups, said the city hasn't done enough.
"We have repeatedly asked our city council to increase access to affordable housing, and to open a year-round emergency shelter," Brackman said in a news release. "But rather than work with us to identify even a single lawful place where people can be, the city has only made it harder for the churches to provide even basic services."