Members of the Civic Center Roundtable, a self-organized group of homeless people living in Santa Ana, say police have increased confiscation of the homeless' belongings. They claim that, before, the police used to check their belongings a couple times a week. Now, they are now checking every day. According to Roundtable member Lorenzo Benitez, the police received complaints from county employees about the homeless' belongings and are confiscating those they consider "hazardous materials."
But Benitez thinks none of the items that have been taken from him and his peers–clothes, blankets, pillows, and medicine for those who are sick–are hazardous.
"The police would tell us to move out of the way and those who didn't would get arrested and go to jail," Benitez explains. "They say our things are going to blow up."
Of all the items being confiscated, Benitez says medicine is the most alarming. One of his peers who has HIV got his medicine confiscated, and when her friend tried to retrieve it for her at the police station, it was gone. Other peers who had pneumonia and anxiety disorders also experienced the same thing.
City of Santa Ana Communications Manager Alma Flores says the homeless' belongings are usually confiscated if it's considered lost or abandoned. It is then stored by the city for 90 days and can be claimed by the owner for free. After 90 days, items valued at $50 or more are sold under public auction. However, Benitez argues that cops have been searching the homeless' belongings even if they're not lost or abandoned. Moreover, when he and his peers come to claim them back, they're no longer there.
"I had this happen to me once," Benitez explains. "They went through my pockets and found my quarters. I said, 'You know, what you're doing is illegal–you can't do this.' He went through my personal computer and camera. When I went to claim it afterward it was gone."
One group that has been fighting for the county's homeless is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who have recently sued the City of Laguna Beach for the "ineffectiveness and discriminatory nature of its homelessness program." Heather Johnson, an attorney leading the organization's pro-homeless Dignity for All Project, says the county's treatment of the homeless will put them on a downward spiral.
"The criminalization of the homeless is prevalent because local governments have ordinances that impact them," Johnson says. "Because of this, homeless people develop criminal records which makes it harder for them to get jobs and housing. Part of what motivates local governments to do this is their need to get rid of visible homelessness."
Benitez says that for years, the Civic Center Roundtable has urged the city to create a storage area for their possessions. Because they've been unsuccessful, they're trying to form a coalition with interested collaborators, not only for a storage area but also to fight police confiscation. Recently, they presented a proposal for a storage area to the city manager but never heard back.
"When the police come and take you over, sometimes you end up with a ticket and at homeless court," Benitez explains. "They're still making money off of me."