The ACLU filed suit against Honolulu, Hawaii on Wednesday over the city's raids of homeless encampments, saying officials violated constitutional rights of individuals dwelling in the camps by throwing out food and vital belongings during massive sweeps.
The complaint was filed on behalf of families and children living in one of the nation's largest homeless encampments, which the suit says has been regularly targeted for clearance sweeps—that at least one plaintiff said also impedes families' attempts at becoming housing-secure.
According to the suit:
In just one unannounced sweep in Kaka’ako, on November 13, 2014, City officials seized and destroyed the Plaintiffs’ property, including their food, childrenʻs toys, prescription medications, and government identification documents....City workers have repeatedly refused to allow property owners to retrieve necessary personal belongings like medications and identification documents, instead threatening them with arrest if they interfere with the sweep.
"The Constitution protects us all equally, regardless of who we are and whether we are rich or poor," said ACLU Hawaii legal director Dan Gluck. "Using arrests to solve homelessness and destroying what little property a homeless individual has to survive is contrary to a fair and just community. All these policies do is set families back and makes it harder for them to build productive lives."
Explained plaintiff Tabatha Martin, "Like many people here, my husband and I are working hard. Weʻre saving up for a small apartment for us and our four-year-old daughter. Every time the City comes and throws away our tents, or our clothes, or our IDs, they throw away our lives. We have to start all over again and pay to replace those things. All of our savings are used up, keeping us on the street even longer."
Lack of identification has also prevented Martin and families like hers from being accepted into homeless shelters in the area.
Honolulu's crackdown on homeless encampments have grown increasingly stringent in recent months with new ordinances forbidding storing property on sidewalks. But the city is also required to retain the seized belongings and return them to owners for a $200 fee—an onerous rule which plaintiffs say often get ignored anyway. The case outlines numerous instances in which cleanup crews simply threw seized goods, including tents, in the trash.
"We lost a canopy. We didn’t have time to break that down once they come out with the red tape," Martin told KITV. "My husband lost all his forms of identification and in his eyes he doesn't exist at all."
Included among the plaintiffs are several children, identified only by their initials, who said they went hungry after city officials threw out food seized during the raids.
As Gluck told the Associated Press on Wednesday, "The Constitution prohibits what the city has done repeatedly to our clients, which is to come up to them and seize and destroy their property without any recourse whatsoever."
Added Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, "You're talking about a community with almost no access to justice."