March 4, 2020
Last July, the city of Los Angeles was hit with a class action lawsuit from homeless advocates and seven unhoused people whose property was taken when city workers swept the places where they were living.
The lead plaintiff is Janet Garcia, a housecleaner who lost her apartment in March 2017 and had been sleeping in a Van Nuys Metro station when, in April of 2019, it’s alleged that L.A. Sanitation workers “took most of Ms. Garcia’s belongings while she was watching her neighbors’ property so her neighbors could go with outreach workers—to sign up for unemployment benefits and obtain a new identification card.” As a result, according to the lawsuit, Garcia lost cleaning jobs, and is now worried that if she leaves her things unattended they will again be seized by workers.
“These sweeps leave her feeling that she has an impossible choice,” the lawsuit reads, “either lose her job or lose all of her belongings.”
People who live in houses rarely consider the consequences of “sweeps”—they may even ask for the city to clean up homeless encampments—but for the homeless people affected by these operations, they can be devastating, traumatic events that deprive them of the few resources they possess. Sweeps are often conducted with an utter disregard for the well-being of the people they affect, and are failures of both city management and basic humanity. The good news is that relatively simple tweaks to protocol could lessen the damage done.
How encampment sweeps work
When a city considers a tent encampment to be a nuisance—most commonly due to complaints issued from nearby homeowners, business owners, and other power brokers in the city—it is then “swept.” (Civic institutions largely forgo this term and instead use the euphemism “cleaned.”)
While there are specific quirks for each municipality, the general process is largely the same. A notice is posted nearby with an allotted time frame, usually three days or so, during which people need to vacate the area. (Sometimes notices don’t appear at all.) At some point after that time elapses (if it’s raining or if there is a protest, the sweep may be delayed a few days), a combination of police officers and sanitation workers invade. Police escort those living in the tents away, and may fence off the area. Once the area is “secure,” sanitation workers begin throwing everything into the idling garbage truck.
“People are only given a short amount of time in which they have to move everything, and if they can’t, people lose everything,” said Osha Neumann, consulting attorney for the East Bay Community Law Center, who just helped win a $2 million settlement against the California Department of Transportation for destroying homeless folks’ property. (In 2019, I profiled Neumann’s work for the San Francisco Chronicle.) “People are simply cleaned out,” he said. “The day begins with them having what they need to survive, and they come back and don’t have a home.”