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Portland illegally discarding personal property during homeless sweeps, class-action suit alleges

A group of houseless individuals have joined a class-action lawsuit filed against the city of Portland Monday, alleging contractors have been illegally discarding people’s personal belongings while dispersing homeless encampments.

Under Oregon law, the city must collect and retain all property that is “recognizable as belonging to a person and that has apparent use” when clearing out homeless campsites. The city is required to store the property in a warehouse and give individuals 30 days to retrieve it. They are able to discard the property if they determine it’s unsanitary or has no obvious use.

The suit argues the city has systematically failed to comply with these rules safeguarding the property of homeless individuals. The four named plaintiffs argue the third-party contractors take no steps to responsibly store their items and routinely fail to document or label what they take. All plaintiffs had valuable property taken in the last six months that they could never retrieve.

“Everything’s thrown into one truck. They don’t know who you are. How do they know what is yours?” said plaintiff Jennifer Bryant, who said she has experienced four sweeps in the last six months. “It would be like going to the city dump and saying ‘Okay here you go, find your stuff.’”

Since becoming homeless about a year ago, Bryant has lost all of her clothing, her tent, a laptop, sleeping bag and bedding in sweeps among other items, according to the suit. She has been unable to retrieve any of it.

Attorneys with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, law firm OlsenDaines and the law office of Kelly D. Jones filed the class action on behalf of the plaintiffs. The attorneys are asking the city to change its policies around dispersing campsites and bring the city back into compliance with police directive and the Anderson Agreement, a 2012 settlement agreement the city entered into that governs the steps the city needs to take when dispersing a camp. The suit does not ask for a monetary award.

“All we are asking is for the City to follow the laws that are already in place,” said attorney Michael Fuller in a statement. “We hope the Mayor will simply agree to the relief we’re seeking, rather than waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars litigating against our team of volunteer attorneys for the next year.”

Fuller added he wants to see the city keep the case in Multnomah County Circuit Court with local judges and not ask to move the class action lawsuit to federal court.

While the suit is narrow in focus, attorney Juan Chavez said it speaks to a larger issue about the futility of sweeps that shuffle homeless individuals from one site to the next.

“We’re engaging in the process of moving people probably at best 200 to 300 feet away. It demonstrates the futility of this. It doesn’t create any greater social welfare. It just harms people. It’s punishment,” he said. “It doesn’t change anything. I think even Mayor Wheeler referred to this as whack-a-mole.”

In a recent interview with KATU, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said until there is a stronger social safety net in place to help people out of homelessness, the city will “be playing a little bit of a game of whack-a-mole.” The city has argued in the past that dispersing encampments is necessary to keep public spaces sanitary and accessible to the public. The city declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The announcement comes less than a week after the city announced it would be returning to a “more assertive approach” when it comes to dispersing homeless encampments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued guidance advising cities to not clear out homeless encampments during the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The city had cut back on the numbers of campsites it dispersed.

But it didn’t stop completely. All four named plaintiffs have been subject to sweeps in the last six months.

One plaintiff, Mark Usher, had been subject to five sweeps while camping in the area around Laurelhurst Park. According to the suit, one police officer entered his tent and kicked Usher’s belongings into a trash bag, including a pair of goose-down gloves that relieved the deep pain in his hands from nerve damage. Neither Rapid Response — the company the city contracts with to disperse camps — nor the Portland police took pictures, made a list of property taken, or labeled the bags. Usher was unable to retrieve his property.

“Because of the effects of having to start over after people’s belongings are taken during sweeps and because of the constant threat of that deprivation by sweeps, Mr. Usher believes that many unhoused people find it impossible to look for work,” the suit states.

Steven Black, a plaintiff who has been homeless since 2013, has tried twice in the last year to retrieve his items from the storage warehouse after his campsite was dismantled. Once he was told that somebody else had picked his belongings up. The second time, there was no record of his property.

“I’ve lost a really nice bike that I bought with my disability money, I’ve lost two tents, gear, sleeping bags, pretty much you lose everything. You get what you can carry on your back or your bike,” said Black in an interview with OPB. “You can pretty much write off what they take, I’ve learned.”

Black said if his property is taken again, he won’t try to retrieve it.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting