Lawsuit: Fort Wayne cleanups violate rights of the homeless

Indiana's second-largest city faces a federal lawsuit alleging that it is violating homeless residents' constitutional rights by destroying tents, coats, blankets and other property seized during sweeps of homeless camps.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne on behalf of a homeless man who alleges his coat and other property was seized by the city on March 21 and destroyed.

Fort Wayne has conducted more than 10 raids since December 2014 on homeless camps in and around the city's downtown, the suit alleges, saying the seizure and destruction of property belonging to the homeless violates those residents' constitutional rights.

The city, the lawsuit claims, has an "unconstitutional, discriminatory, and unconscionable policy of seizing and destroying the property of homeless individuals without opportunity or procedure to contest or prevent its seizure or destruction."

David W. Frank, the attorney who filed the suit, said there are at least 300 homeless people and likely considerably more in Fort Wayne, a city of about 257,000 residents in northeastern Indiana.

He said the property taken during the sweeps of homeless camps beneath bridges and other locations is either incinerated or thrown away, sometimes leaving the homeless without coats and blankets during the cold weather months.

"It's discriminatory and the larger purpose is to force homeless people out of sight, so they won't, you know, 'Dirty up the downtown'," Frank said. "It's basically a criminalization of homelessness because homeless people, even if their camp is raided, they can't go somewhere else and not be homeless."

Fort Wayne spokesman John Perlich said Wednesday that city officials cannot comment on pending litigation. But he said the city has conducted "20 cleanups" of homeless encampments since 2011.

The sweeps are prompted by complaints and the homeless are notified 48 hours beforehand, he said. A private contractor handles the sweeps "due to the public health concerns (biohazards/medical waste, etc.) and complications involved at the encampments," Perlich said.

"Homelessness is a community challenge" that social service agencies and community partners "work tirelessly to help address," Perlich said in a statement.

The complaint asks a federal judge to grant preliminary and permanent injunctions to prevent the city from seizing and destroying homeless people's property and to determine if the city's actions violate the Constitution's equal protection and due process provisions and other legal protections.

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