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ODOT settles federal lawsuit by homeless campers

Agency paid $14,000 and tightened its procedures for campsite sweeps

Oregon's Department of Transportation has paid $24,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed last year by several homeless campers whose possessions were tossed out by crews clearing rights of way of makeshift shelters.

The state transportation agency also agreed last month to write and enforce stricter procedures for handling possessions taken from homeless camps in rights of way. Under the rewritten rules, ODOT and other agencies must post adequate information about where campers can retrieve their belongings once they are taken in a campsite sweep.

'It was clear that we had not followed our own procedures in cleaning up the sites,' said Patrick Cooney, ODOT spokesman. 'We worked with the Oregon Law Center to develop a new process and the ways we're going to do this in the future.'

Under the settlement, Cooney said $14,000 pays attorney's fees and $10,000 will be given to plaintiffs Joel Tucker, Steven Fletcher, Jeff Nelson, Robert Dean Thomas, Chandra Waulters and Mitchal Poncel.

Court papers completing the settlement are expected to be filed by early August.

Do it properly

In April 2010, six homeless people sued ODOT, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and about 50 unidentified county and state employees for what they said 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.

The Oregon Law Center of Portland handled the case. The center also represents four homeless people who are challenging Portland's anti-camping ordinance in federal court. That lawsuit, filed in mid-December 2008, was nearly settled last year, but an alternative dispute resolution process failed to produce an agreement.

In the lawsuit against ODOT, the homeless people said that during a sweep of their campsite near Interstate 205 and Southeast 92nd Avenue, state employees failed to follow agency rules and to properly store belongings for 30 days.

Tucker said took him 21 days to retrieve his possessions from a state storage facility, something he says should not have happened if the employees had followed state rules.

The lawsuit also asked a federal judge to approve 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.

Cooney said ODOT's rewritten procedures are 'more clear' and 'put a finer edge' on the process 'so everyone knows what to follow.'

'We want to do this properly and not heavy-handedly,' he said.