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Judge strikes down law letting city clear homeless camps

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published January 5, 2011

An Anchorage judge has struck down a city law allowing authorities to clear out homeless camps -- and throw away everything left behind -- with five days' notice.

Many homeless people who end up in camps are chronic alcoholics or mentally ill and may need more time to gather their belongings and find another place to live, state Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner said in his opinion this week. He ruled that the city ordinance, passed in 2009 and revised as recently as September, is unconstitutional on its face.

City officials maintain that homeless camps are dangerous, unhealthy and illegal. Police say people have been beaten, raped and killed in the camps.

The city has been trying to come up with a law that gives the homeless enough time to clear out, but not so much time that the unsafe situation is allowed to linger on public land. Homeless camps have popped up all over the city along greenbelts, in city parks and on vacant land.

Attorney Dennis Wheeler said the Sullivan administration is evaluating whether to appeal, or ask the Assembly to change the ordinance so that it is acceptable to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska Foundation, which brought the suit.

The ACLU sued the city in April on behalf of a homeless man, Dale Engle, as well as other homeless people. Engle is an Army veteran who said he lost everything he owned when his camp was cleared out in 2009. His tent, his sleeping bag, his military ribbons and even a checkerboard handcrafted by his father were gone. He's now living with family, the ACLU says.

When it comes to property seized as evidence, belongings left behind by tenants, or abandoned vehicles, city and state law in each circumstance allows at least 10 to 15 days for individuals to recover what is theirs, Rindner wrote.

"There is no reason why the Municipality cannot treat the property of the homeless in a similar fashion," Rindner said in his opinion, issued Tuesday.

But the city says the situation of homeless people is different.

"These folks by and large know that they are on public property, not private property, without permission. Our position has been it is an illegal act to begin with," Wheeler said. "Why give an unlimited amount of time, or two weeks time."

In contrast, someone who loses something may not realize it right away or know where to look, he said.

In July 2009, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously passed an ordinance allowing officials to clear out illegal homeless camps on public land after 12 hours' notice.

When authorities showed up to clear the camps, people were given 20 minutes to get their stuff and go. After that, police or other city agents could throw away what was left behind.

In June 2010, after the ACLU sued, the Assembly extended the notice period to five days and added a requirement that notices left at camps telling people to clear out must include information about how to appeal.

That July, Rindner issued an order blocking the city from enforcing the law. Police still could go into camps and make arrests because of criminal activity but they couldn't order everyone off public land and throw away their belongings.

"What the municipality was trying to do was throw everything out. Sleeping bags. Personal papers. Tents. Cooking gear," said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska.

With the city unable to clear out the camps, complaints about them increased over the summer and fall, especially in West Anchorage, where camps materialized in new places, Mayor Dan Sullivan said.

"Our inability to abate the camps definitely had a public safety effect, a negative one," the mayor said.

In September, the law was amended again. The latest version said that people who appealed to a hearing officer and lost would get another two days to take their plea to court before their property was destroyed.

GRAY-JACKSON: DON'T APPEAL

The measure contained no provision for the city to store property collected from homeless camps. Rindner referred to a ruling in a similar case against the city of Miami that said homeless people may be discouraged from leaving their camps for fear of losing their clothes and medicine.

It's more important for people to keep their belongings than for a city to have clean parks, the court wrote in the Miami case.

Mittman of the ACLU said the organization would support giving people 15 days to clear out of a homeless camp, or as little as three days' notice if the city would store the collected belongings for a set time period.

Assembly member Elvi Gray-Jackson said the city should have worked with the ACLU so the matter didn't end up in court. The administration shouldn't appeal the decision, she said.

"It would be stupid if they did. They are going to lose and cost us more money. What is it going to take to understand this is unconstitutional?" she said.

She has been working with her constituents to clean up Campbell Park, off Tudor Road. It had been overrun with street alcoholics. But she said she also wants to protect the interests of the people living in camps.

"I think that's really a minor thing, to let someone get their belongings together," Gray-Jackson said.

Sullivan said he wants his homeless leadership team to take another look at how to deal with camps in light of the ruling. He appointed the team in 2009 after a series of Anchorage homeless deaths.

Many leaders of nonprofit agencies serve on the team. "Maybe one of them would like to take on the task of storing, categorizing and taking care of people's possessions," Sullivan said. "It sounds like a perfect job for a viable nonprofit."

It would be expensive for the city to store the belongings, he said.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

By LISA DEMER

ldemer@adn.com

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