ANCHORAGE - Anchorage police raids on homeless camps in which tents, sleeping bags and other personal belongings were seized and destroyed were unconstitutional, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Dale Engle, a disabled veteran whose camp has been raided numerous times. It describes some of the items seized as "irreplaceable souvenirs of better times in the life of a homeless person: a letter from a now-dead child or parent, military medals, a photo album from a wedding."
Medals and ribbons Engle received from serving in the Army and National Guard were taken in 2006, and his tent and sleeping bag - items he bought with money earned from day labor jobs - were seized last spring.
"Taking the sleeping bags and tents from homeless campers, who often have nowhere else to go, deprives the poorest among us of the few possessions they have - possessions vital to survival in Anchorage's climate," the complaint said.
Engle, 52, said he went to authorities to retrieve the medals and ribbons, but was told they were gone.
"I earned those 12 ribbons and to have them destroyed and not being able to have that fair chance to retrieve them, it gave me a major loss," he said at a news conference outside Anchorage Superior Court.
Engle said he's not alone. His many "brothers and sisters" living in Anchorage's homeless camps have also had their tents, sleeping bags and other belongings taken, including clothes, jewelry and personal hygiene items. Engle said he now brings his few possessions with him.
According to the lawsuit, a census taken in Anchorage in January 2009 estimated 157 people slept outside.
Last July, the municipality of Anchorage codified its longtime practice of clearing out homeless camps. It halved the time required for notice, giving the homeless 12 hours to get their belongings and leave the area.
At least three camps have been raided since the ordinance was passed, including one that may have been on the grounds of a church and another called "Veterans' Ridge" that had existed for several years, the complaint says.
The ordinance that allows for the raids is unconstitutional because it doesn't require due process or warrants to be obtained, said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska.
The lawsuit seeks a moratorium on the raids until changes are made, including providing longer notice and a process in which the homeless can dispute whether their property should be seized and prevent it from being destroyed.
Municipal attorney Dennis Wheeler said the lawsuit is premature. The city has been working with the ACLU all winter on making some changes to the ordinance, he said.
"I don't think litigation is anywhere near where this needs to be at this time," he said.
Mittman said the ACLU hopes to avoid litigation and work with the municipality in coming months on a more appropriate way to deal with the problem of homelessness.
"A homeless person is a citizen of Anchorage, a citizen of the United States," he said. "They, like the rest of us, have rights."