The City of Akron has never been good about taking care of homeless people. They have the worst laws for panhandlers in the State of Ohio. They have very few shelter options and they do not guarantee access to a shelter bed. This means that if the shelters are full, homeless people must sleep on the streets. Last week, we found out from a group of CWRU student law students that Akron Police were moving homeless people out and then throwing away their valuables.
Eleven homeless people living outside in Akron allege that the Akron Police were stealing and discarding valuables from homeless people. The lawsuit claims that the Akron Police under the direction of City officials would raid their campsites and then throw away tents, clothing, medicine directly to the City landfill.
The Akron Police claim that they did give proper notice and that most of the items taken were drug paraphernalia and other contraband. According to the Plain Dealer, the police claim that they acted properly. Personal property is held in high regard in the State of Ohio, and so government has to go to great lengths to hold personal property in a secure manner. A person can go to prison for 25 years and government must keep their property safe and return it to them upon release. To dispose of forgotten property governments must issue a public notice and provide sufficient time to retrieve these items. A landlord must ask the court to dispose of a tenant's belongings if they disappear. The lawsuit claims that the City government did not secure their belongings after confiscating them, and the personal property was taken directly to the trash.
In nearly every case going through the courts, when a City throws away the belongings of homeless people they have to pay. I know that in Miami, Chicago and a number of cities in California were all forced to compensate homeless people for the loss of their valuables. I can't see how this is going to end any differently for the City of Akron. In Cleveland, we fought this all through the 1990s with settlements that provided homeless people $3,000 for picking them up and dumping them on the outskirts of town, and then we settled on an agreement between the City and homeless people in 2000 in a case called Key vs. City of Cleveland that police will not harrass homeless people living outside for purely innocent behavior.
The bigger issue for residents of Akron is that when cities start targeting homeless people we see an increase in hate crimes against the population. When government gives the go-ahead to treat homeless people as lesser citizens, there are disturbed people who take that signal as open season on torturing, attacking and becoming violent with fragile people living outside. Unfortunately, these are mostly young people who terrorize people living under bridges or in abandoned property. We know that these laws and police sweeps lead to feelings of betrayal and abandonment by the population and it only keeps people homeless for a longer period of time. This will not reduce the population, but will do the opposite. We explore what Akron should do to reduce the number of people sleeping outside in a future post.
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Post Script: The CWRU Observer did a good summary of the case published this last week. (One note, Brian is no longer Executive Director of NEOCH. He is a community organizer, but the story is still sound.)