Homeless men and women weathered by the elements and carrying bags and backpacks are getting a chance to tell their side of the story in federal court about how the city of Sacramento treats them.
In a highly unusual case that focuses on their nightly searches for places to sleep, the city's down and out are pitted against city police who are charged with enforcing a local ordinance prohibiting camping in undesignated areas for more than 24 hours at a time.
The civil class action, brought on behalf of all homeless people in Sacramento who have lost tents, blankets, photographs and other personal property in police sweeps since 2005, is one of few cases of its kind in the nation, attorneys said.
"This is going to be a full education" on the struggles that homeless people face daily, plaintiffs attorney Mark Merin promised the U.S. District Court jury in opening statements on Monday. Chief among those struggles, he said, is "trying to hang onto your property when you are living outdoors."
Merin argues that the city has violated the constitutional rights of homeless people in its "policy and practice" of seizing their belongings without proper notification, discarding it as trash, and failing to tell them how it might be retrieved.
As many as 20 current or former homeless people will testify about their experiences with police sweeps, he said.
On the other side, Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm told jurors that the city has an obligation to enforce the law and respond to complaints about camping. Once people leave a tent city, Trimm said, "somebody has got to clean up" what is left behind, some of which is "pretty darned disgusting."
At times, Trimm said, it is unclear "what is usable property, and what is junk that no one wants."
The city has violated no constitutional rights, said Trimm, and treats the homeless and their property no differently than other citizens. Policies "are applied equally to everyone," he said.
In his opening statement, Trimm said officers assigned to homeless issues have reached out to campers, at times helping them connect to services or transporting them to court dates. Officer Mark Zoulas, part of a city police team that homeless people fondly refer to as "Batman and Robin," will be the city's star witness.
"He cares for them. He cares for their safety," Trimm said of Zoulas.
More than 30 homeless men and women and activists appeared in Judge Morrison England's 14th-floor courtroom on Monday morning, eager to take part in the proceedings. Most had to wait outside, in the elegant marble hallways of the federal courthouse with sweeping views of downtown, until they could be called as witnesses.
One is Kendall Gabriel, an Army veteran who said he lost a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for combat service during a police sweep downtown on Ahern Street in 2005. Gabriel, in a hallway interview, said police grabbed a bag containing those items and others and refused to give it back.
It took him two years to replace the medals, he said, and the new ones are not engraved with his name like the originals.
Taking the stand Monday afternoon was Linda McKinley, who in 2006 was sleeping on the streets of Sacramento. McKinley said she was "on drugs, had numerous health problems and no income" and slept in a sleeping bag on sidewalks. During that year, she said, police took her property "numerous" times.
McKinley underwent treatment for her problems, she said, and now lives independently in an apartment.
Once while she was homeless, she said, she and a couple of others were sleeping in front of a paint shop near 12th and North B streets when officers in the wee hours of the morning gave them "five minutes to get up and get out, or we were going to jail."
"They put all our stuff in a trailer," she said. "They just picked it up and threw it in there like garbage."
Among the items she lost that day, she said, were her identification card, eyeglasses, medication, legal papers and photographs.
"I just lost everything," she said. "It was really devastating. It was like losing my house in a sense. It was like I had been stripped."
Marinthia Hunt testified that she has been homeless since 2001 and has lost plenty of items in sweeps, including sleeping bags and letters from her children. Police took them, she said, despite the fact that she neatly boxed her property to illustrate that it was not garbage.
Under questioning by Trimm, Hunt admitted that she had left to get coffee on the morning the items were taken, and never saw who confiscated them. She also acknowledged having had 10 tickets charging her with illegal camping prior to that day.
Merin, an advocate for the homeless who once allowed his charges to sleep on his private property, filed the civil action against the city and county in 2009. The county resolved its portion of the lawsuit by agreeing to pay $488,000 to the plaintiffs. The city refused to settle.
Plaintiffs attorney Cathleen Williams, Merin's spouse, said such cases have rarely if ever made it as far as trial.
One of the challenges of the case, Merin told England, is finding and issuing subpoenas to homeless people, who are constantly on the move.
"We have made the effort to find people and serve them," Merin said. "But the population of homeless persons is such that it's sometimes difficult to remain in contact."