Courts & Crime

ACLU sues to stop Anchorage from evicting homeless campers

Anchorage's crackdown on homeless camps is facing a court challenge from the ACLU.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Anchorage Superior Court takes aim at a city law passed in July that says police can clear out illegal camps from public lands after giving 12 hours' notice. If the campers don't comply, police and a private organization can stuff everything into trash bags and pile it on the roadside for pickup.

Now the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is suing the city and Police Chief Mark Mew over the practice, contending it violates individuals' constitutional rights.

The lawsuit protests "the pattern, practice and official policy of the municipality of Anchorage to confiscate and destroy the property of Anchorage's homeless residents."

The suit contends the 12-hour notice period is too short and also says the law doesn't give homeless people the chance to argue their camp is legitimately on private land. In addition, the city doesn't give homeless people the chance to reclaim seized property. Instead, it's thrown away, the lawsuit said.

"Taking the sleeping bags and tents from homeless campers, who often have nowhere else to go, deprives the poorest among us of the few possessions they have — possessions vital to survival in Anchorage's climate," the ACLU lawsuit said.

The suit is filed on behalf of Dale Engle, a disabled veteran who used to live in the Muldoon woods. The ACLU hopes to have it certified as a class-action on behalf of all homeless campers whose property is subject to being seized.

Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler said the city has been negotiating with the ACLU for months over revising the ordinance by giving the homeless more time to move on. He doesn't think Anchorage police have swept away any camps with just 12 hours' warning, even though police sought the change in law to allow it.

"It's usually been days, so the ACLU is anticipating something that's not likely to happen," Wheeler said.

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