A list of items people say were thrown away by city workers. Photo by Kelly Davis
Katherine Peace was walking down East Village's 16th Street on Tuesday, Sept. 22, at around 11 a.m. when she saw police cars and a white city trash truck pull up near a fence-enclosed empty lot. A group of homeless people who normally camp on the sidewalk had left their stuff behind—shopping carts, bedrolls, backpacks and the like—amid other trash and debris that had accumulated in the area. Some people were across the street eating breakfast at God's Extended Hand, the homeless-services mission; others had walked around the corner to the Neil Good Day Center.
“They park their shopping carts there all the time,” Peace said. “Nobody messes with them.”
Michael Kilpatrick, a volunteer at God's Extended Hand, also saw the vehicles pull up. City workers then started throwing the grocery carts and everything they contained into the truck, Kilpatrick said, where the items were then compacted. When Kilpatrick saw city workers reach for two carts belonging to a man he knew, he told a police officer that the carts' owner was over at the day center. Kilpatrick was told he had two minutes to get him.
“I told [the carts' owner], ‘Hey they're about the crush your stuff,'” Kilpatrick said. “He came down and then they were, like, ‘It's too late,' and they crushed everything he had. They let him take the backpack because it had his personal information, and then they just took all the stuff out of his carts—like his blankets and everything he owned—and they just put everything in the trash compactor, all his personal belongings. They were, like, ‘Sorry, it's too late. We posted a warning.'”
Yolanda Dillard's stuff was in a “Born Again Basket”—a donated, fixed-up, pale-blue-painted grocery cart given to her by the nonprofit Isaiah Project.
“Everything I had, birth certificate and everything,” was in the cart, Dillard said. “Nothing's left.”
Jose Ysea, spokesperson for the city's Environmental Services Department, said the cleanup was a joint operation with the San Diego Police Department that stemmed from a citizen complaint about homeless people camping at three East Village sites. Ysea said his department handled 27 similar abatements between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, none of which generated any complaints.
“This is the first one that actually drew media attention,” he said.
Ysea said warning signs were posted along the 400 block of 16th Street, as well as two other nearby locations that were cleared on the same day. Kilpatrick said he never saw any signs. But at least one was still up last Tuesday, a copy of which was faxed to CityBeat by an attorney who plans to file a claim against the city on behalf of people who had their possessions destroyed. The sign shows a date posted of Sept. 17 and says that the area would be “abated of all waste (rubbish, recyclable waste material, etc.) on or after 9-18-09.” It also says that “items of personal value must be removed prior to the above date or they will be removed by City forces.”
Under city municipal code, it's illegal for personal possessions to obstruct the public right-of-way. According to code, unattended items “whose owner cannot be readily identified are presumed to be abandoned.” But the law also states: “Wherever possible, Enforcement Officials shall make a reasonable effort to ascertain whether the unattended personal property or possessions have been abandoned,” and “unattended personal property or possessions that are sanitary and saleable or useable and of a value greater than one hundred dollars ($100) shall be transferred as soon as is practicable to the Chief of Police.”
Ysea said it's up to city workers to determine what's salvageable before throwing it out.
“They'll do a quick visual assessment,” Ysea said. “They won't go through every basket or every bag that's there, but they'll be looking for items of value, for personal items such as prescription drugs. If they have their names on it and it looks like something that's going to need to be picked up later, they'll impound it through the Police Department.'
Peace said she didn't see anything being set aside or inventoried—everything went into the truck and was compressed, she said.
“No one told them they could pick up their stuff,” Peace said. “One lady just got her insulin. It hadn't been compacted yet, but they told her it was too late.”
Luis Quinones said he lost everything, including his mother's engagement and wedding rings.
“We told them, ‘We're right here.' They told us, ‘You're too late,'” Quinones said. When asked by a reporter why he left valuable items unattended, Quinones said he was at God's Extended Hand eating breakfast and the rules forbid people from bringing carts inside. He'd gotten into the habit of leaving his cart across the street with everyone else's.
“I figured it's going to be safe,” he said.
Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long said that no items were turned over to the Police Department. He said he was told that code officers from Environmental Services took photographs of the site prior to the cleanup and also photographed items before putting them into the truck.
Scott Dreher, an attorney who represented the homeless in a challenge to the city's illegal-lodging law, said he plans to file a claim against the city this week on behalf of people who had their property destroyed. Dreher pointed to a July 2008 class-action lawsuit in which the city of Fresno was required to pay $2.25 million after a federal judge found that city employees repeatedly and improperly seized and destroyed homeless folks' personal property.
Dreher refers to what happened last week as a “raid.”
“The city took the carts, which they knew were not trash and belonged to people,” he said.
Long said that last Tuesday, after he received a call from CityBeat asking about the cleanup, he immediately drove over to God's Extended Hand. He talked to Kilpatrick and other witnesses and left his business card with instructions that anyone who had asked for their property back and were refused should call him.
“I never got a call back,” Long said, adding that he's confident his officers behaved properly.
“If someone said, ‘That's my property' and we continued to let it be put on the truck, I've got a real problem with that,” he said.
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