Nation - Alaska ACLU going forward with lawsuit against city over homeless camp Issue of storing belongings was an impasse

By Mary Pemberton

Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is proceeding with a lawsuit to prevent further raids of homeless camps in Anchorage.

The ACLU had hoped to reach an agreement with the municipality over the destruction of the camps and disposal of property belonging to the homeless. But Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the Alaska ACLU, said no agreement could be reached protecting the constitutional rights of the homeless.

The lawsuit, which was served Friday, asks the court to tell the city to stop raiding the camps. Anchorage has 20 days to respond.

Mayor Dan Sullivan's administration indicated it could not store seized property and would not agree to extending the 12-hour notice period, Mittman said.

"We cannot risk further destruction of necessary personal belongings and must proceed to put in place reasonable protections as soon as possible," Mittman said.

Sarah Erkmann, Sullivan's spokeswoman, on Monday said the mayor had hoped the disagreement would not end up in a lawsuit.

"The municipality's last best offer the mayor thought was quite reasonable, but the ACLU disagreed," she said.

Municipal lawyer Dennis Wheeler said the ACLU wanted a two-week notice period but the city thinks that five business days is "more than sufficient." The issue of storing belongings also was an impasse, he said.

"We don't want to be in the storage business at all," Wheeler said.

A draft ordinance worked on this winter that addresses some of issues is on the agenda for the Anchorage Assembly's meeting on Tuesday, he said.

ACLU lawyer Tom Stenson said the organization worked with the city to come to a mutual understanding before deciding to proceed in court.

The ACLU recommended that the homeless camps be handled like other municipal nuisances such as leaking septic tanks. In those cases, the property owner is notified, given the opportunity to go before a municipal hearing officer and provided at least two weeks to fix the problem, Stenson said.

In the case of the homeless, "Our primary concerns were that people have the opportunity to be heard, that they have the opportunity to get a hearing of some sort before their property is taken and that there is some type of storage of people's property," Stenson said.

The municipality last July codified its longtime practice of clearing out the numerous homeless camps set up mostly in heavily wooded areas around the city. At least three camps have been raided since the ordinance was passed.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in Superior Court last week on behalf of Dale Engle, a disabled veteran who has been homeless for decades. Engle said he has had his tent and sleeping bag confiscated in raids, as well as a dozen Army medals and ribbons that he kept in a suitcase. He said when he filled out the appropriate paperwork and tried to retrieve his medals within three days of the raid, police told him they had been destroyed.

Stenson said raids on homeless camps are happening all over the country but he can't think of another city that is conducting them like Anchorage.

For example, in Fresno, Calif., the homeless are given three days notice and 90 days of storage for their belongings. In Washington, D.C., they get 14 days notice and 45 days of storage, he said.

Published: Wed, May 12, 2010