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  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Donna Yeiter-Olson signals her approval after depositing her $400 settlement check Tuesday with a nonprofit financial service at Loaves & Fishes in Sacramento. She had filed a claim for lost items including a tent, sleeping bags, medicines and a camp stove.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    James Little pockets his settlement check Tuesday at Loaves & Fishes in Sacramento. Recipients with permanent addresses will receive their payments by mail.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Billy Pinkham of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee looks through settlement checks the group will distribute.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    James Wilson, center left, and Jessie Brooks pick up their settlement checks Tuesday at Loaves & Fishes as compensation for property they lost when Sacramento police raided their campgrounds.

Poll

Is it fair that Sacramento was required to reimburse homeless people whose property was seized by police during raids on illegal campgrounds last year?

Homeless receive checks in Sacramento settlement over police cleanup

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:45 pm

A down payment on a used truck. A sleeping bag. A bus ticket out of town.

Homeless men and women had lots of ideas Tuesday for how they might spend the windfalls they are receiving this week for property that Sacramento police officers have seized and destroyed during raids on illegal campsites since 2005.

Residents of shelters, streets and cheap motels began collecting checks ranging from $400 to $750 Monday at the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex on North C Street and other locations around town, while those with permanent addresses are getting their money in the mail.

The payments resolve an unusual class-action lawsuit charging that Sacramento police stomped on the constitutional rights of homeless people by grabbing their belongings and throwing them away without giving the owners a chance to get them back.

The resolution will cost the city $796,050 in payments to 1,143 people who lost personal property including tents, lanterns, prescription medications and family photographs, said civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who represented the winning plaintiffs. The city also will be responsible for "substantial" legal fees, he said.

Merin is requesting $1.8 million in legal fees, a number that the city believes is inaccurate and out of bounds, said Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm.

"Where's the justice in that?" he asked. "Who's really benefiting from this?"

Merin countered that his legal team "put a bunch of hours into this case" during a span of more than two years.

While the lawyers continued to battle, people like Marion Atkins, 53, started thinking Tuesday about how they would spend their new-found cash.

"It means I'll be able to buy a few things I want," he said.

Atkins said he is pleasantly surprised that the legal process worked in favor of a group of people without much political clout.

"All I know is, I came home one day and all my stuff was gone," said Atkins, 53, who stood to collect $1,400 for property seized in two separate campsite raids.

Factoring in the Social Security disability payment Atkins receives for a seizure disorder and other health problems, he might be able to trade his spot "on the riverbed" for an apartment in Rancho Cordova, he said.

The complicated process that ended this week with check distribution began after a federal jury found last year that the city failed to properly notify homeless people about how to retrieve their possessions following sweeps of illegal campsites, and failed to implement policies for handling that property.

The trial featured a parade of homeless witnesses, some of whom testified about losing outdoor "survival gear" and other items seized in the raids. A city police officer testified that officers must routinely roust campers in response to complaints, and then clean up the messes left behind.

Trimm said Tuesday that while the city respects the jury's verdict, officials disagree that officers violated any constitutional rights when they enforced an ordinance that bans camping in undesignated areas for more than 24 hours.

Following the verdict in their favor, homeless people began filling out claim forms handed out at shelters, soup kitchens and campsites. The forms asked for identifying information, dates of when property disappeared, whether city employees were responsible and the homeless person's efforts to recover property.

Plaintiffs filed 1,499 separate claims, said Merin. A claims administrator made a preliminary ruling on the validity of each case, and a federal judge appointed as a special master resolved disputes between the two sides. In the end, 1,143 claims were deemed valid.

Sacramento County originally was part of the civil lawsuit but settled its portion in 2009 with a payment of $488,000 and the development of elaborate policies for tagging and storing items seized during sweeps.

Even before the lawsuit's resolution, Trimm said, the city improved its process of notifying homeless people about sweeps, and alerting them to where they can collect their property.

Donna Yeiter-Olson lived outside for 18 years before recently landing a spot at Sister Nora's Place, a shelter for women with mental illnesses. She collected a $400 check Tuesday for lost items including a tent, sleeping bags, medicines, flashlights and a camp stove.

Standing outside the Delaney Center, the Loaves & Fishes legal clinic, she gripped a blue Wal-Mart bag that contained her crisp new check. She raised her arms in a victory pose. "We were going on principle in this case, but I'm so happy today," she said. "Now maybe the city will do something besides just take our stuff and throw it away."

Yeiter-Olson, 55, made a beeline for a nonprofit financial service on the Loaves & Fishes campus that helps her manage her Social Security payments. Painfully thin, wearing jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Love," Yeiter-Olson approached the counter, signed her check and handed it over to the attendant.

Once an emergency room nurse, she said, she was brought down by agoraphobia and addiction to methamphetamine and alcohol. But she is sober now, she said, and getting a handle on her mental condition.

"Awesome," she said as she headed for her tiny cubicle at Sister Nora's Place. "God is taking care of me today."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert



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