Grasshopper Soup: Jury stands up for the homeless
June 21, 2011
TRUCKEE/TAHOE and#8212; The true character of a society hinges upon, among other things, how it treats its weakest members. A government, especially ours, should stand behind weaker individuals, and protect them from stronger, and better advantaged groups and individuals. When the weak need protection from a government that is too strong, something is terribly wrong.
In Sacramento, and in cities all across America, the rights of homeless people do not enjoy the high priority they deserve. It is a complex issue with no easy answers. There may be no permanent solution to end poverty and homelessness. There will always be poor and homeless people. We have our own right here in the Tahoe Basin.
A jury in federal court decided that the city of Sacramento failed to protect the property of the homeless after their campsites were and#8220;cleaned up,and#8221; and personal belongings, like tents, sleeping bags and medicine, were removed.
The jury found that the actions the city took to and#8220;sweepand#8221; illegal campsites were reasonable, and that adequate notice had been given prior to the sweep. But they also found that the city did not adequately protect the confiscated items when they were taken.
If the city had not recognized the serious magnitude of the ethical situation they had on their hands when they enforced the illegal camping ordinance, things could have been a lot worse. If the city had recognized the ethical and moral, not to mention the constitutional, imperatives they faced and still took valuable belongings from the homeless, then they would have been guilty of an abuse of authority.
You donand#8217;t take things that donand#8217;t belong to you, especially someoneand#8217;s bed, home and medicine. The possessions of the homeless deserve the same level of protection that the property of the affluent is given.
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To their credit, the city of Sacramento did provide some recourse for the retrieval of the possessions. But they also bulldozed and destroyed some of the items they seized. Taking vital possessions from people in the first place, let alone destroying them, seems a little out of character for any American city. It does not bode well for our inclination to justice in general. When a stranger takes your property, the city calls it theft.
The best way to control the property, especially medicine, would have been to hold it at the site where the valuables were found so they could be more easily claimed. If they had done that, the city may have saved the $448,000 they settled the case for in 2009.
The procedures and policies the city is now finally putting into place should have existed long before the jury decided that they had failed to uphold their constitutional obligation to adequately protect the vital possessions of less fortunate citizens.
A successful attempt to return all the valuables to their rightful owners depends on both parties, not just the city. But the only way to guarantee that possessions as important as sleeping bags and medicine are rightfully claimed is to not take them in the first place.
The city of Sacramento is in an unfortunate pickle between public health and safety and the rights of the homeless. But the homeless are in an even worse pickle. It is hard to maintain your health when the people sworn to protect you confiscate your medicine.
The city ordinance against camping in certain areas exists for many good reasons, but not one of those reasons is a good enough excuse to separate people from personal possessions vital to their survival.
One would like to think that civic and legal authorities, churches and private citizens, are working with each other to avoid this kind of injustice. A city government shouldnand#8217;t need a federal jury to remind them they are there to serve and protect all the people.
Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 28 years.