Can You Throw Away a Homeless Person’s Possessions?

The manner in which the possessions of a homeless person can be disposed of has been the subject of evolution over the past dozen years. What has happened in Los Angeles provides a good example of this evolution.

In 2006, a court settlement was reached in a lawsuit involving homeless people living in encampments in LA and the city. The case is Jones vs. City of Los Angeles. The case was brought against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, on behalf of homeless people in LA. The case focused on what can and cannot be done with the possessions of homeless people found in a public area.

The Jones case ended up in the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. It was while pending in this court that the referenced settlement was reached in the case. The decision of the Court of Appeals can be found via this link.

The prime example of possessions of homeless people in some type of pubic space is property of homeless people in encampments. With that said, the case also addressed possessions of homeless people not living in encampments.

Possessions of Homeless People Prior to the Jones Case

Prior to the Jones lawsuit, possessions of homeless people in public spaces oftentimes was seized and thrown away by law enforcement officials and other representatives of the city. For example, city officials were swooping in on homeless encampments, tearing them apart, and disposing property found at these locations. This included the seizure of all manner of personal property of a homeless individual.

Possessions of Homeless People in LA and Other California Communities After the Jones Settlement

The settlement of the Jones case set forth the way in much possessions of homeless people must be handled in Los Angeles. This specifically governs possessions found in a homeless encampment. With that said, the settlement ultimately impacted how possessions of homeless individuals not in encampments are addressed in LA as far as seizure of property is concerned.

Other communities have established similar guidelines, appreciating that if they ended up being sued, they would likely end up in a position of having to reach a settlement similar to the one in the Jones case. In the alternative, some cities were concerned that if they didn’t adapt, ended up being sued, failed to reach a settlement, they could end up with even less favorable dispositions of this type of legal dispute after a trial.

Possessions of a Homeless Person in a Homeless Encampment

There is a six part process for dealing with possessions of homeless people in an encampment.

First, a determination is made that a homeless encampment is on public property or a right away of some type.

Second, a report is sent to various agencies and organizations about the presence of the homeless encampment. These agencies are Bureau of Street Services Investigation and Enforcement Division, BOS, LAHSA, and LAPD. LAHSA is the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority.

Third, LAHSA becomes the first point of contact with the residents of an encampment. The organization is required to offer services to people in the encampment at least once and up to four times.

Fourth, the Investigation and Enforcement Division makes a final determination that a violation exists because of the existence of the encampment.

Fifth, the city must post a 24-hour notice at the encampment. The notice must advise residents of the encampment of the planned cleanup.  The notice is designed to provide people living in the encampment with time to remove their possessions.

Sixth, the cleanup of the homeless encampment occurs. Obvious personal possession left at the encampment must be sorted and stored for the residents at a facility located in downtown Los Angeles.

Possessions of a Homeless Person not in an Encampment but on Public Property

As mentioned previously, city personnel cannot seize property of a homeless person not residing in an encampment even if that property is found on public property or a right away. The owner of the property must be given an opportunity to collect and remove the possessions. If that does not promptly occur, certain possessions that would seem to have some value for a homeless person must be stored in the manner described a moment ago.

Possessions of a Homeless Person on Private Property

If a homeless person leaves his or her possessions on private property, the owner of that property is not prohibited from disposing of that property. In disposing of a homeless person’s property, a private property owner needs to pay heed to the fact that there could be harmful substances mixed in with the possessions. Thus, care must be taken in regard to the manner that the possessions are collected and disposed by a private property owner.