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City settles lawsuit over homeless persons’ property

LOS ANGELES — The City Council June 14 approved a nearly $500,000 settlement of a lawsuit that accused the police and city of working with a local business improvement district’s security firms to illegally seize homeless people’s property in Skid Row.

The council unanimously approved a payment of $495,000 to the plaintiffs — the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a homeless advocacy group; the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which operates a soup kitchen known as the “Hippie Kitchen;” and four homeless individuals.

The city, the Los Angeles Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District and the BID’s administrator, the Central City East Association, were named as defendants in the federal lawsuit, which alleged the city maneuvered around court orders preventing police from seizing homeless people’s property by having the officers contact the BID to have its private security officers do so.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to instruct police officers not to contact the BID to have property removed, and the BID agreed to strict guidelines under which it can move or seize property, including providing 24 hours written notice and holding the property for 90 days.

“This case really arose because business improvement district officers were coming in and seizing homeless people’s property when those individuals simply walked away to go to a doctor’s appointment or to go to the bathroom,” Shayla Myers, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told City News Service. “They would be gone for really limited amounts of time and the BID would swoop in and take their belongings and transport them to a warehouse. Sometimes the property would be stored, sometimes it wouldn’t.”

The City Attorney’s Office had no comment on the settlement, in which the city did not admit violating any laws.

“In large part, we are happy with the settlement, but I’d say what we are more excited for is a final end to the illegal confiscation of homeless individual’s property. That’s what this is really about,” Eric Ares, a community organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, told CNS.

The city was under a federal injunction prohibiting police from seizing property that is not abandoned, an immediate threat to health or safety, or evidence of a crime, when the lawsuit was filed in 2014.

The plaintiffs argued that despite the injunction, private public safety officers — known as “red shirts” — hired by a consortium of downtown business owners continued to take unattended property from the homeless along Skid Row, in violation of the transients’ constitutional rights.

“In addition to criminalizing homelessness with laws and actions the court has held to be unconstitutional, the city has also embarked on an unconstitutional campaign to seize homeless people’s property and to remove homeless individuals from the public sidewalks,” according to the lawsuit.

“The city has persisted with this approach despite repeatedly being rebuked by the courts.”