Dozens of homeless people will soon take the stand in a Sacramento, Calif. courtroom to share their experiences of having their personal possessions seized by local authorities.
The rare case highlights the often untold struggles of homeless Americans attempting to create makeshift homes for themselves in a climate where law enforcement policies target them and their rights are ambiguous.
The civil class action lawsuit brought before federal court represents all homeless people in Sacramento whose possessions were taken in police sweeps since 2005, The Sacramento Bee reports. The period of time includes the highly publicized closure of the "Tent City" homeless encampment.
Approximately 20 people are expected to testify, but the case touches many more. So far, over 60 homeless men and women have filed depositions and the case could end up including 2,000 plaintiffs total, KCRA reports.
Each one has their own story of how their belongings were taken and what they lost. Some had tents, sleeping bags and other necessities confiscated; others lost sentimental possessions.
According to The Sacramento Bee,
Among the items she lost that day, [Linda McKinley] said, were her identification card, eyeglasses, medication, legal papers and photographs.
"I just lost everything," she said. "It was really devastating. It was like losing my house in a sense. It was like I had been stripped."
A homeless veteran, Kendall Gabriel, told The Sacramento Bee that his medals, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, were among the items police confiscated from him.
Prosecuting attorney Mark Merin charges that Sacramento authorities violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs by seizing property. Merin says that items were taken without sufficient notification and destroyed -- instead of giving the homeless opportunities to reclaim them. California law mandates property be kept for 90 days so that owners are able to retrieve their possessions.
In an interview with KCRA News, Merin said:
"I think the city had a mandate to clean up areas where homeless people were living. And it felt that the easiest way to do it was just to take the stuff and toss it."
City officials meanwhile argue that police officers were only doing their job by enforcing laws that restrict people from camping for more than 24 hours in areas not designated as campgrounds. They also deny that the police force routinely destroyed or discarded property.
In the case of the dissolution of the tent city specifically, the city says that residents were given weeks of advanced notice -- and had the opportunity to relocate their belongings, but chose not to.
In its most simplistic form, the case begs the question: what rights do the homeless have?
While the prosecution says rights were violated, Sacramento government officials say that the constitutional rights of the homeless were upheld and they were treated no differently that any other citizens.
While instances of homeless people claiming the confiscation of their property is common across America, cases like this rarely make it to trial for a variety of reasons.
The homeless are socially ostracized, making it difficult for them to have proper venues to take issues of discrimination to court.
Even if legal advocates want to help, organizing a group of individuals without permanent addresses or contact information can be a challenge to pulling together a case.
A similar class action suit filed by the ACLU in San Diego was settled out of court. Like the Sacramento case, the lawsuit charged that police conducted raids in which they illegally confiscated and destroyed things belonging to the homeless.
The city of San Diego agreed to open a storage facility to house all confiscated property, so that homeless owners would be able to get back their items.
Whether this solution will play a part in the Sacramento decision is unclear, but the groundbreaking case's outcome could have wider-reaching implications for the homeless beyond California's capital.