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People Who Are Homeless Sue San Diego Over Citations, Arrests

San Diego Police officers talk to a man sitting beside his makeshift shelter on National Avenue, April 12, 2017.
Matthew Bowler
San Diego Police officers talk to a man sitting beside his makeshift shelter on National Avenue, April 12, 2017.

People Who Are Homeless Sue San Diego Over Citations, Arrests
People Who Are Homeless Sue San Diego Over Citations, Arrests GUEST: Kath Rogers, attorney, Dreher Law Firm

Our top story, a San Diego city ordinance against placing property on city streets has is the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit. It's filed against the city encouragement ordinance. In the words of one attorney, they have turned those people into criminals just for existing. Joining me is Kath Rogers, attorney, Dreher Law Firm . Welcome. This encouragement ordinance was not originally enacted because of people living on the street. You claim the homeless have become the targets of the law. What to think is the problem with the way it is enforced? The law was enacted in 2007. It was never designed to target people living on the street. It was intended to address trash dumpsters. Somewhere along the line, the citations went from a few dozen to in the thousands. In 2016 there were over 2000 citations under this code and that's because it is now enforced against people living on the street. This law initially attended -- intended for dumpster is being used against humans. You claim the wording is vague. Does someone have to leave something on the street for a long time in order to be subject under this ordinance? Is a broadly worded law and bands putting anything on public property, any object for any length of time. Is no legislative guidelines in terms of how to enforce this law and that is unconstitutional because people need notice of when they will violate a law. When you read the text, he should have an indication of when law enforcement will punish you for doing something against the law. It's a vague law, it's poorly written and now it's used in a way it was never intended by city Council. What impact you claim the city ordinance has on your clients? It's counterproductive in the sense when you try to get off the streets, generally are looking for a job, housing, when you have warrants or find you cannot pay, court hearings etc. it creates a series of obstacles to getting off the streets. This undermines the city's own efforts. The city on its website wants to eradicate homelessness. This criminalization of people living on the street is getting in the way of that goal. We have done stories about the encroachment law and how homeless are getting ticketed. Assistant police chief said that enforcement is taking place during the day and is mostly driven by complaints and residences. Our efforts are designed for the daytime. If there are structures walking the sidewalk, that's where our efforts are. You have to think about sanitation issues as well. What about that argument? People don't know when they set down their backpack or their sleeping bag if they will be targeted by police. Right now, this is a law completely at this discretion of arbitrary decisions on the beat. We need some legislative guidance. There are valid health and safety concerns in any population of people. Those can be addressed with a finely tuned law as laws are supposed to be, not this sledgehammer that's overly broad and gives note notice as to when people will be prosecuted.! It is this asking the city to rewrite the law? We are asking for the city to stop enforcing the law in this way against people living on the street who have nowhere else to put their things because when you live on the street you need some possessions. Medication, a blanket, a change of clothes, these are basic human needs that people need living on the street. When you have nowhere else to put your things in the only place you can put them is public property, but there's a law against setting your things down, you cannot avoid being the target of this law.! At your cocounsel successfully sued the city over homeless issues before. I am thinking the ComicCon begins today. The city has engaged in sweeps before big events like that. Do believe that has happened again? We have heard anecdotally that is the case. Especially for big events. When we have over 5500 people living on the street in San Diego and maybe 400 free storage bins and not enough shelter space, 2700 transitional beds for people, there is not enough housing or storage. There's no way for these individuals to comply with the law Your 10 people who are your clients now. Are you expecting more as this sort? We will see. That's always possible. We have 10 representatives and being, they understand they represent everyone was in their shoes. What's next? That remains to be seen. We filed Monday in federal court so we will have to see how the city responds and we will be in close medication with the city to move forward. As mentioned, there have been two prior major lawsuits about homelessness. We will see if the city is willing to work with us to create an end to the criminal is of homelessness and push forward proactive solutions that can actually work towards progress. I have been speaking with Kath Rogers, attorney, Dreher Law Firm, thank you so much.

Ten homeless people filed a proposed federal class-action lawsuit on Monday that challenges the city of San Diego's enforcement of its encroachment ordinance as unconstitutional.

The law prohibits placing objects in the public right-of-way. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said it has become the city's primary enforcement tool to address homelessness.

"Talk to nearly anyone on the street, and chances are they have been cited or arrested for encroachment," said attorney Scott Dreher.

He said the way the city enforces the law doesn't provide for equal treatment.

"A business owner is given notice and warnings, whereas someone living on the street is punished on the spot, arrested, and pressured to sign a stay away order barring them from the area," Dreher said.

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He said the law was initially enacted to address the placement of trash dumpsters.

The City Attorney's Office said its lawyers would review the complaint and consult with city officials.

The lawsuit, filed at the U.S. District Court in San Diego, alleges that homeless people can't avoid being targeted by the law.

"If people are living on the street, where do we expect them to put themselves and their things?" said attorney Kath Rogers. "The city is effectively punishing people for being homeless."

RELATED: Policing San Diego Homeless Is Much More Than Citations, Says Assistant Police ChieF

The lawyers said that if the lawsuit is successful, the city could no longer punish people living on the street for placing belongings on public property when they have no alternative.

They're asking for judicial findings that their clients' right have been violated, and for the city to be barred from using the law against the homeless in the future. They also asked that pending charges against their clients be dropped.

Dreher said he's been involved in prior cases that resulted in the city funding a storage center for homeless peoples' belongings, a ban on police destruction of personal property during sweeps and halting municipal enforcement of the state's illegal lodging statute between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.