Lawsuits criticize homeless treatment by city of Fresno

FRESNO, Calif.

Attorneys filed nine lawsuits in federal court Thursday, accusing the city and Caltrans of violating the constitutional rights of Fresno's homeless population. But the city says it's doing the right thing, and it's ready to fight.

When bulldozers scooped up most everything they found at a homeless encampment on Santa Fe near Ventura in downtown Fresno last October, they essentially made the encampment disappear. The area is now littered with some trash, but it's free of tents. The displaced homeless people say the dozers also made their personal property disappear.

"They threw away a lot of personal belongings," said a homeless man who goes by the street name Patch. "People lost their driver's license, their birth certificate, you name it, Social Security cards. They're gone."

Patch joined the group that tried to stop the dozers, but when CHP officers showed up, he walked away from his camp.

"It was pretty evident on my part that it was going to happen and there was no need for anyone to get hurt, so we just tried to hold them to the court order," Patch said.

The court order he's referring to came out of the 2008 settlement to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Fresno homeless people. Oliver Wanger was the federal judge who heard arguments. He says the city is allowed to conduct sweeps, but employees can't just destroy whatever they find.

"The concepts of trespass -- being on property where you don't have permission -- or nuisance -- creating conditions that interfere with the health and the safety, the enjoyment of property by its owner -- nobody argued in the case that those laws shouldn't apply and be enforced," Wanger said. "The case had a narrower focus and that was the way the property was being treated."

This time around, the city says it saved all the property in four sea trains. It's all catalogued, waiting in downtown Fresno for displaced homeless people to claim. Patch admits he found his medical papers inside. But homeless advocates like Chris Schneider say not all the property was saved.

Schneider is the executive director of Central California Legal Services, which filed some of the nine lawsuits against the city and Caltrans. "We're hoping that the city will recognize that homeless people too have Constitutional rights," he said.

Schneider is hoping the new lawsuits will make homeless sweeps the next thing to disappear.

The city attorney's office tells Action News they've worked extensively to protect the rights of the homeless, while also addressing public health and safety issues. Our calls to lawyers for Caltrans went unanswered.

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