Sacramento homeless tell jury of losses in police sweeps

Published: Wednesday, May. 11, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 6, 2011 - 9:59 am

A glucose meter. Arthritis medication. A photo of a beloved mother. A Bible.

These are among the items destroyed in recent police sweeps of campgrounds where the down and out sleep, homeless men and women told a federal court jury on Tuesday.

The emotional testimony took place in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, where a class-action civil lawsuit on behalf of homeless people is playing out before Judge Morrison C. England Jr.

Plaintiffs lawyers Mark Merin and Cathleen Williams argue that the city has violated the constitutional rights of the homeless in its "policy and practice" of seizing their belongings without proper notification, discarding property as trash and failing to inform them about how to retrieve it.

Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm contends that officers are obliged to enforce a law against camping in undesignated areas and to respond to complaints about the homeless and the messes their tent communities create. Trimm said the city treats homeless people and their property no differently from other residents.

Several people who lost belongings in sweeps since 2005 testified Tuesday, and said their lives were upended by the police actions.

Karen Hersh said she found herself living in a large tent city near the Blue Diamond almond plant after she lost her job as a truck driver and, later, her apartment. The area had its problems, but she could bring her pet cat Tuffy, and she felt some sense of safety in numbers, Hersh said.

One day, after several notices that she and nearly 200 others would have to leave, she watched from a levee as work crews scooped up her tent and other belongings and dumped them into a truck along with the possessions of her fellow campers, she testified.

"My tent and everything around it was smashed and destroyed," including a shopping cart, barbecue grill, birth certificate, medicines, clothes, shoes and an afghan that she had been "working on for six months."

"I had everything set up just like a little house," Hersh said.

"Now my stuff was gone, and I had to lay on the ground with my cat."

She slept on streets and sidewalks with nothing more than a blanket, she said, for more than five months. Now she gets Social Security payments and lives in a small apartment.

Trimm asked Hersh why she failed to move from the tent city after she was ordered to do so.

"I had nowhere else to go," she said, and was ill from a severe case of poison oak. She had been in the hospital in the days before the sweep, Hersh said.

Andrew Jackson was camping at a downtown area that homeless people call "Field of Dreams" when police seized his duffel bag containing personal items including photos of his dead parents, he testified.

Jackson, who said he suffered a brain injury as a child that has left him unable to read or write, wiped tears as he talked about losing the pictures.

Later, he asked an officer, "Why did y'all throw my stuff away?" he testified. He said he got no answer, or any indication of where he might retrieve his things.

Another witness, Connie Hopson, said she once watched as they "dumped everything I owned," including her cellphone and "my brand new Bible."

Trimm is trying to show that officers tried to be diligent in notifying homeless people when they needed to move, and of helping them collect important belongings.

One homeless woman, Carol Davis, testified that officers often checked on her small camp of females late at night to make sure they were safe. She said officers sometimes would warn homeless people to separate their belongings from trash in an effort to protect the items during raids of camps.

Years later, a constant cat and mouse game between police and homeless people still occurs, according to advocates, with campers routinely rousted from their sleeping quarters and forced to find new places to live.

Sacramento County originally was part of the unusual class-action suit, which was filed in 2009. The county elected to settle, paying out $488,000 to resolve its portion of the case. The city declined to do so.

Homeless people who are part of the case said they feel empowered about telling their stories in court.

"I want people to know our side of it," said Hersh, her voice breaking outside the 14th-floor courtroom. "I want people to see things through our eyes. Not all of us are out there because we are bad people or drug addicts. Some of us found ourselves there because of different circumstances."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert

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