Last July, the city of Los Angeles was hit with a class action lawsuit from homeless advocates and seven unhoused people whose property was taken when city workers swept the places where they were living.
The lead plaintiff is Janet Garcia, a housecleaner who lost her apartment in March 2017 and had been sleeping in a Van Nuys Metro station when, in April of 2019, it's alleged that L.A. Sanitation workers "took most of Ms. Garcia's belongings while she was watching her neighbors' property so her neighbors could go with outreach workers—to sign up for unemployment benefits and obtain a new identification card." As a result, according to the lawsuit, Garcia lost cleaning jobs, and is now worried that if she leaves her things unattended they will again be seized by workers.
"These sweeps leave her feeling that she has an impossible choice," the lawsuit reads, "either lose her job or lose all of her belongings."
People who live in houses rarely consider the consequences of "sweeps"—they may even ask for the city to clean up homeless encampments—but for the homeless people affected by these operations, they can be devastating, traumatic events that deprive them of the few resources they possess. Sweeps are often conducted with an utter disregard for the well-being of the people they affect, and are failures of both city management and basic humanity. The good news is that relatively simple tweaks to protocol could lessen the damage done.
How encampment sweeps work
When a city considers a tent encampment to be a nuisance—most commonly due to complaints issued from nearby homeowners, business owners, and other power brokers in the city—it is then "swept." (Civic institutions largely forgo this term and instead use the euphemism "cleaned.")
While there are specific quirks for each municipality, the general process is largely the same. A notice is posted nearby with an allotted time frame, usually three days or so, during which people need to vacate the area. (Sometimes notices don't appear at all.) At some point after that time elapses (if it's raining or if there is a protest, the sweep may be delayed a few days), a combination of police officers and sanitation workers invade. Police escort those living in the tents away, and may fence off the area. Once the area is "secure," sanitation workers begin throwing everything into the idling garbage truck.
"People are only given a short amount of time in which they have to move everything, and if they can't, people lose everything," said Osha Neumann, consulting attorney for the East Bay Community Law Center, who just helped win a $2 million settlement against the California Department of Transportation for destroying homeless folks' property. (In 2019, I profiled Neumann's work for the San Francisco Chronicle.) "People are simply cleaned out," he said. "The day begins with them having what they need to survive, and they come back and don't have a home."
Sweeps can deprive people of the few possessions they have
After Brooke Carrillo lost her home in Los Angeles, she placed everything she could into storage. When she couldn't pay those bills, the company got rid of her belongings, but Carrillo still believed she could manage as long as she had her more important items. She was living on the sidewalk for about three weeks when she experienced her first sweep.
"They came and started to tell me they were taking my stuff, and I was in shock," Carrillo said. "They give you 15 minutes to get what you want. Fifteen minutes to think of what's happening and what you need. They ended up taking my birth certificate, my Social Security card, my mother's necklace that her mother gave her, the only pictures of my brother and my dad, both of who are no longer here. I felt like my own life went in the trash. I felt alone, worthless, and that I was going to die by my own hands, or just by being out here with nothing. It makes you feel like you don't matter."
For the past year, the Coalition on Homelessness has been documenting what has been lost during sweeps in San Francisco through the Stolen Belonging project, in the process talking to people like Carrillo whose lives have been upended. Sometimes they lose tents or beds, or basic necessities like clothing or toiletries. Sometimes it's items of real monetary value, like computers, telephones or bikes. Important documents that people need to obtain benefits, like birth certificates or IDs, can also be thrown into the trash, along with truly irreplaceable objects—Crystal had her dad's ashes taken from her, Angel Amador had pictures of his daughter taken away, Veronica Ocampo had her phone, stove, paperwork, makeup and grandma's jewelry all tossed away.
"I'm on very expensive medication and [Department of Public Works], for the fifth time, came and took my stuff," a San Francisco resident named Patricia told the Stolen Belonging team. "It was a 90-day supply. And just to get it back for a 30 days supply, the pharmacy is charging me $3,500. I can't afford that."
Some cities have put in place certain protocols for sweeps, including specifications for notifications and how personal property should be stored. (Some cities claim to hold personal property for 90 days before disposing it, but many unhoused people VICE has spoken to say that the process of locations where the items are, and then getting to the location, is onerous.)
Opposition to sweeps is growing across the country
Whatever problems homeless people face living in an encampment, being ordered by their city to simply scram doesn't help them. Activists have dubbed this the "leafblower approach" to solving homelessness, essentially scattering people without hint or suggestion where they should go. (As I've previously explained, while some cities have available space in shelters, people have logical reasons to avoid them and remain sleeping outside.)
It was this lack of clarity on where next to go that caught Andrea Henson's eye. She's a housed activist who witnessed a sweep in Berkeley, California, last September, and kept seeing people asking, "Where do we go? Where do we go?" Henson later went to the City Council manager, and no one could answer this question. So Henson decided to organize. She moved into a tent at the encampment to build solidarity and find out what was needed.
"It was summer time, and it was freezing at night," Henson said. "You hear the rats all night, and you don't have a door, you have a zipper. Your day is spent thinking about where you go to the bathroom, where are you going to take a shower? How are you going to eat? You can't light a fire, can't wash dishes. Surviving becomes your daily routine."
Over time, she helped form a coalition of 130 or so people living in a few nearby encampments, who all now go by the name Where Do We Go Berkeley? They've raised money to buy new tents, install and maintain port-o-potties, and have participated in two marches as well as two acts of civil disobedience when they refused to move during a sweep. They have mostly been left alone since.
This burgeoning resistance to sweeps is becoming more common. People experiencing homelessness have increasingly become connected to advocates and housed neighbors, with groups taking the initiative to send text blasts when a sweep is occurring. At the very least, this can result in people filming sweeps—last August's "Operation Clean Sweep" in Boston was documented by housed allies, which then became the material used in subsequent reports.
An alternative to sweeps would be giving people what they need
Grassroots coalitions are also beginning to form to act as a protective measure against sweeps—in San Francisco, it's called Solutions Not Sweeps, in Los Angeles, it's Services Not Sweeps. What do "services" or "solutions" mean? "People want cleaning, everyone wants to feel safe and hygienic," said Kelley Cutler, an organizer in Solutions Not Sweeps. "But there's a big difference between a cleaning and a sweep."
A cleaning would be some combination of a standard trash pickup—leaving bins, or going tent-to-tent and offering to take what's not wanted—while perhaps also providing outreach workers to help encampment residents trim their collections. (It's worth pointing out that housed people and businesses have been known to use encampments as illegal dumping grounds.)
Another important service is something all of us humans need: A place to piss and shit. Regularly maintained bathrooms are an obvious solution, but as hinted at with the private funding needed to be raised for Where Do We Go Berkeley's port-o-potties, cities often scoff at this logical measure. "It appears that if [a city] provides services, they are recognizing that people are staying there," Henson said, "and the acknowledgment creates liability issues."
"We also need to give people cleaning supplies, a color printed map to show exactly where is going to be cleaned, and social workers out there instead of cops," said Jed Parriott, an organizer for L.A.'s Services Not Sweeps. "We don't need cops at all out there. One of our demands is to remove LAPD completely."
Parriott said that the city had agreed to this request, but due to pressure from sanitation workers and police unions, there is still a visible police presence during sweeps. The city had also agreed to create a website listing all upcoming sweeps, he said, so that people in the encampments would have accurate information, and also so community members could document the actions. This also has not yet taken place. (VICE reached out to the City of L.A. for comment but did not receive a response.)
These negotiations may seem focused on minor trivialities, but they're vital for those experiencing homelessness. As long as cities continue failing to figure out how to actually get people inside of homes, these sweeps will remain traumatic events for our most vulnerable neighbors.
"We get accused that we're just enabling people to be on the street, that we're fighting for people to sleep outside," Parriott said. "We all say we know that housing is the solution, but that's going to take so long, we need to start treating people with dignity and respect now."
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