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Homeless campers sue to block state from destroying belongings

Federal class-action case says ODOT doesn't follow its own rules on camp sweeps
by: Christopher Onstott Homeless campers, like these on Hayden Island, could lose belongings during a sweep. Six homeless people are suing ODOT in federal court because they lost personal items in campsite sweeps.

Joel Tucker, homeless for most of the past four years, sometimes camps in makeshift shelters on public rights of way, which violates Oregon law.

In March 2010, while he was away from his campsite near Interstate 205 and Southeast 92nd Avenue, state employees swept through the area, rousting campers and gathering up Tucker's tent, sleeping bag, clothing, medication and tarp.

Tucker returned to discover that his few possessions were missing. It took him 21 days to retrieve them from a state storage facility, something he says should not have happened if the employees had followed state rules.

Read ODOT's rules:

Personal property (as defined in OAR 734-035-0020) will be separated during cleanups from trash/debris/junk (which will be immediately discarded) and items to be turned over to law enforcement officials and stored. The personal property shall be stored for no less than 30 days. During that period it will be reasonably available to persons claiming ownership of the personal property.

Without his tent and sleeping bag, Tucker spent the night under a bridge. He unsuccessfully sought $1,200 from state officials to cover the loss of his property.

In mid-April, Tucker joined five other homeless people who are suing Oregon's Department of Transportation, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and up to 50 unidentified county and state employees in federal court for what they say were violations of their Fourth Amendment constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure and the failure of the agencies to follow state rules on storing personal items found in homeless camps.

Under Oregon law, people who camp in public rights of way are trespassing. Signs posted in some places under bridges and along highways warn campers that they could be violating the law and may be forced to move. The signs also are supposed to tell people how they can retrieve personal items if their campsites are swept by law enforcement or ODOT employees.

The lawsuit targets ODOT's sweeps of camps and the plaintiffs want a federal judge to force the agency to follow its own rules on preserving personal property found at campsites. The plaintiffs are also seeking an injunction against the state and county to block public employees from taking personal property from campsites without adequate notice and without posting information about how to retrieve the items.

'If you read the regulations that apply to ODOT's camp sweeps, you will see that ODOT is required to separate 'junk' from 'personal property,' ' said attorney Monica Goracke with the Oregon Law Center in Portland, which represents Tucker and five others in the federal case. 'The plaintiffs' complaint alleges that ODOT violates this regulation by not distinguishing between personal property and junk, and regularly discards items that are apparent as personal property.'

Lost ID cards, boots

The lawsuit was filed April 11 in U.S. District Court on behalf of Tucker, Steven Fletcher, Jeff Nelson, Robert Dean Thomas, Chanda Waulters and Mitchal Poncel. All of the plaintiffs have been homeless in the past few years and have lost items in camp sweeps.

In addition to the injunction, attorneys also asked the court to allow the case as a class-action lawsuit to cover other homeless people across the state facing similar situations.

ODOT officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying they do not discuss pending litigation.

No court date has been set to hear the lawsuit. Both ODOT and Multnomah County have several weeks to respond to the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, most of the six people were camping at various times in the past year on the open space near Southeast 92nd Avenue and Flavel Street, a stone's throw from I-205. Their campsites were among trees near a walking trail that passes under the highway and around tracks for TriMet's Green Line MAX train to Clackamas Town Center.

In each case, the plaintiffs lost personal items they said were taken during sweeps and then either lost or destroyed. Waulters said she and her companion lost bicycles, sleeping bags, a portable DVD player, boots, a TriMet transit pass and an envelope with identification cards, birth certificates and other personal items.

'Nothing to steal'

Nelson, who has been homeless for most of his life, said he has lost personal items from his campsites three times because of the sweeps. Two years ago, while an inmate at Multnomah County's Inverness Jail, Nelson was part of a crew that swept through homeless camps in the area, gathering up items and cleaning up sites, for which he was paid $1 a day.

During the cleanups, Nelson said in court documents that he 'never saw any notice provided in advance of a camp sweep.' He also said there was often no notice left after a sweep, telling campers how and where they could retrieve their belongings.

'On the few occasions when notice would be left after a sweep, it was sometimes put out of the way or not in an area where individuals would be likely to see it,' Nelson said.

In many cases, during the sweeps in which he was present, Nelson said he saw personal items - documents and other belongings - thrown away.

'I felt that what happened at camps sweeps was stealing from people who had nothing to steal,' Nelson said.

Goracke said she has been told about homeless people in Clackamas and Marion counties, in Central Oregon and on the Oregon Coast facing similar problems.

The Oregon Law Center also represents a handful of homeless people in Portland who are challenging the city's anti-camping ordinance in federal court. Both sides in that case filed in mid-December 2008 tried to work out their differences through a dispute resolution process, but were unable to find a solution, Goracke said.

Changes to the city anti-camping policies were considered last year, but were pulled at the last minute from a City Council agenda.

Goracke said it is unlikely the city and the plaintiffs in that case will settle out of court.

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