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LA sued over seizure of homeless people's belongings

FILE - This Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 file photo shows tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles city and county officials have approved sweeping plans to deal with homelessness at a cost of billions over a decade. The City Council's strategic plan calls for providing more housing and funding programs designed to keep people off the streets in the first place. The city has around 25,000 homeless, more than half the total in LA County. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel,File)
Richard Vogel/AP
Tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles.

A group of homeless people and their advocates filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the city of Los Angeles and police alleging the wrongful seizure of people's property.

Plaintiffs include four homeless individuals who say their constitutional rights were violated when city employees allegedly took their belongings without due process or notice. They’re seeking damages and a stop to the practice.

One of the individuals, Carl Mitchell said he had been falsely arrested for stealing a shopping cart. When he was released from jail, he was not able to get back his backpack containing medications and medical appointment papers, according to the suit.  Another plaintiff Michael Escobedo said he had stepped away from his tent for coffee when city employees started a street clean-up. The suit said upon his return he was allowed to retrieve some of his things, but the tent got thrown away.
"The (city is) using justifications to take the property and destroy it in the name of cleaning up the city," said civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. "What that does is makes homeless people criminals and leaves them without any lifeline."

The mayor's office said Monday night it had not yet seen the suit and had no comment. Other defendants are three police supervisors, Lt. Andrew Mathis, Sgt. Hamer and Sgt. Richter whom the suit said oversaw the seizure of property from the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs include Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which gives homeless people free shopping carts to transport their possessions and the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which helps homeless people recover their belongings it says are necessary to their survival on the streets.

"We’re talking about essentials," said LA-CAN community organizer Eric Ares said. "Tents for the rain, tarps for the rain, social security documents, things of that nature."

Ares said homeless people are often separated from their belongings during clean-ups.

 In the past, city lawmakers have argued the sweeps are necessary for public health. Officials are perpetually barraged with phone calls and emails from residents who worry about unsanitary conditions in the homeless tent camps that have proliferated through Los Angeles. 

The lawsuit comes as the city council looks for more funds for clean-ups. The city budgeted $3.7 million for the Operation Healthy Streets program last year.

Other lawyers representing the plaintiffs are from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman.

This story has been updated.