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Court grants temporary halt to homeless camp raids

Posted: Friday, July 16, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A court on Thursday granted a request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska to stop raids on homeless camps in Anchorage, for a while anyway.

The ACLU requested a temporary restraining order because it maintains that the raids violate constitutional property rights of the homeless. The Superior Court granted the request and issued an order to remain effective for at least 10 days. A hearing on the matter will be held Monday.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU in Alaska, said there are numerous problems with the municipal ordinance passed in June, including the immediate destruction of property seized in raids.

"The way the ordinance is written now everything is thrown out," Mittman said Thursday.

But even the homeless have property rights, he said.

"Every Alaskan has property rights," Mittman said.

The temporary restraining order stems from two recent instances in which people were informed they were illegally camped, Mittman said. Four individuals went before a municipal hearing officer to contest their removal. At last week's hearing, a police officer told them they were actually camped on federal land but the municipality wanted them removed anyway, Mittman said. The hearing officer agreed.

Mittman said they told the city at that time they would seek to have the raids halted.

The municipality last summer codified its longtime practice of clearing out the numerous homeless camps set up mostly in heavily wooded areas around the city. Several camps have been removed this summer and more notifications were recently posted, said municipal lawyer Dennis Wheeler.

The temporary restraining order is not a surprise, given that constitutional concerns about the ordinance are being raised, Wheeler said.

"Anytime you have constitutional issues like this that would have a statewide implication it is not surprising a court would want to look very carefully," he said.

The ACLU objected to a previous 2009 ordinance, saying it violated the rights of the homeless. When it failed to reach an agreement with the mayor, the organization filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Dale Engle, a disabled veteran who has been homeless for decades. Engle said he has had his tent and sleeping bag confiscated in raids, as well as a dozen Army medals and ribbons that he kept in a suitcase.

In June, the Anchorage Assembly approved a revised ordinance giving the homeless a five-day notice to leave the illegal camps as long as social service groups got a chance to get people out first. The five day period was half of what was sought by the ACLU. The city's original ordinance gave campers 12 hours notice.

More than 20 people have been found dead outside in Anchorage in the past year or more, and most of them were homeless or without a permanent place to live.

It's dangerous for the homeless to set up camps in the parks, where they sometimes are assaulted or found dead from various reasons, Wheeler said. It also creates situations in which everyone has difficulty enjoying the city's public spaces, he said.

"People want to be able to use the park and feel safe in the parks and not spend huge amounts of police resources dealing with crime and deaths that occur in the camps," Wheeler said.



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