ACLU Sues Pittsburgh Over Seizure and Destruction of Homeless People's Belongings

May 5, 2003 12:00 am

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ACLU of Pennsylvania
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PITTSBURGH — Acting on behalf of unsheltered homeless individuals here, the American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh today filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit charging the city with depriving local homeless people of their due process rights when it seizes and destroys their personal property, including family photographs, medications and identification papers.

“The city has the right to clean its property, but they can’t do so in a way that runs roughshod over homeless people’s constitutional rights,” said Witold Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh needs to learn from other cities how to conduct sweeps constitutionally.”

The case stems from the city’s ongoing practice of conducting “sweeps” of homeless encampments under local bridges, in parks, and other public areas where the homeless are known to congregate and sleep.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, Pittsburgh Department of Public Works employees enter these encampments during the day without prior notice, when the areas are generally left unattended, to confiscate personal property including medications, personal identification papers, family photographs as well as clothing and blankets. No information is provided to homeless persons concerning how this property may be recovered. All property is subsequently destroyed and the City provides no compensation for people’s losses.

The ACLU has asked a federal judge to block this action and all future sweeps until official procedures are put in place to adequately and directly notify the homeless before the sweeps occur and give them means to recover the confiscated items.

Sweeps of homeless camps in Pittsburgh have been conducted since at least 2001, according to Community Human Services, a local social service agency that advocates on behalf of Pittsburgh homeless. While other cities, including Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, hold similar sweeps, government officials in those cities provide advance and direct notice to the homeless. City employees distribute information on how lost blankets, clothing and other property can be recovered.

No such procedures are in place in the Pittsburgh, the ACLU said. All items are immediately thrown away, cutting off people’s access to the few meager possessions they have. In its lawsuit, the ACLU charges that by doing so the city is depriving the homeless of their rights to due process under the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

According to Moon Johnson of Community Human Services, the city has notified his agency of another impending sweep to be held sometime this week. No direct notice has been given to homeless individuals themselves.

William Duerr, Antoine Randolph, Raymond Sager, and Gary West are the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit filed today. All four are unsheltered homeless men living within the boundaries of Pittsburgh who have had property seized and destroyed in past sweeps conducted by the Department of Public Works.

The complaint in this case is available online at /node/35114

The plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction is available at /node/35112

The plaintiffs’ memorandum in support of this motion is available at /node/35113

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