Featured photo: A photo of a notice that a Greensboro police officer had posted under a bridge near the Interactive Resource Center, informing those taking refuge there that they were “trespassing” on city property. (photo courtesy of GSO WHOA)

Attorneys with the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation are going toe to toe with the city of Greensboro.

On Aug. 23, the grassroots organization GSO WHOA posted on their Instagram that a Greensboro police officer had posted a notice under a bridge near the Interactive Resource Center, informing those taking refuge there that they were “trespassing” on city property. 

“Please relocate your belongings or City Operations will remove your belongings,” the poster read, continuing: “You have 7 days.”

The notice was signed by Officer TB Perkins and instructed the receiver to contact the police department’s HART, or Homeless Assistance Resource Team, with any questions. 

The campsite was gone by Thursday afternoon according to WHOA organizer Del Stone, who added that the signs were still there at noon.

According to Del Stone, the camp and belongings were gone by Thursday afternoon. (courtesy photo)

In an Aug. 29 letter addressed to Mayor Nancy Vaughan, City Attorney Chuck Watts, City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba, Police Chief John Thompson and Deputy City Manager Chris Wilson, ACLU lawyers Daniel K. Siegel and Muneeba Talukder highlight why the city should reconsider its actions.

“It has come to our attention that Greensboro police intend to seize the private property of unhoused people living near the Interactive Resource Center in downtown Greensboro,” the letter reads. 

The ACLU’s letter outlines how this action would “likely violate Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” noting that they “strongly urge” the city to “cease issuing these notices and refrain from seizing and destroying the property of unhoused people.”

“Any efforts by Greensboro to regulate unhoused people must comport with the Constitution,” they state. “We encourage you to meet the needs of your community in humane and sustainable ways that will respect the constitutional rights of everyone who lives in Greensboro.”

In a call with Triad City Beat, City Attorney Chuck Watts stated that, although he supports the organization and its principles, because the ACLU is not representing a specific client in the letter, it makes it difficult for him to respond to the allegations outlined. Instead, Watts stated that the ACLU is “concerned about [the city’s] understanding of the law.”

“We’ve had a couple of conversations, and we think we understand the law and we are meeting the requirements in every way,” Watts said. “They’re talking at a high level without understanding the details.”

Watts stated that the city removes personal objects of people experiencing homelessness because a “public right of way is obstructed.”

Watts noted that the city provides a notice by placing a card or letter next to belongings and gives individuals a week to move their stuff. If they don’t, the city’s field ops team will remove the items and retain them for an unspecified period of time. Watts also stated that there is a number to call on the letters or cards so that if people need additional time before moving their belongings, the city can grant them that. 

However, those who have taken issue with the city’s relationship with homeless people say that these notices are just a part of a long history of increasing penalties against people experiencing homelessness, particularly in downtown Greensboro. 

For the past year, TCB has documented how new ordinances, inadequate temporary housing and changes to the downtown area have directly targeted the homeless community.

This is also not the first time the city has come under fire from the ACLU for the way it’s treated homeless people.

As TCB reported in 2018, the ACLU and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty brought a legal challenge against the city’s past panhandling ordinance that made it illegal for people to ask others for money. Shortly afterwards, the city repealed the ordinance and the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed in 2020.

According to the 2022 Point-in-Time Count, there were 426 individuals who were experiencing homelessness in Greensboro. PIT counts are widely known to undercount the number of unhoused people by a noteworthy gap — some experts say by half or more. Counts are conducted by volunteers every year on the last Wednesday of January.

Why does the ACLU say the city is violating the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” 

“Seizing the property of unhoused people, even when police believe that the owner is violating a local ordinance, is an unreasonable seizure prohibited by the Fourth Amendment,” the attorneys said, adding that a seizure must be “reasonable” even when possessing the property in question is unlawful.

The ACLU said that while Greensboro police have threatened to seize personal property, it is unclear what law they believe is being violated. 

“[E]ven if police believe that the property owners are violating a local ordinance, that does not make the seizures reasonable, especially if the owners cannot get their property back.”

Why does the ACLU say the city is violating the Eighth Amendment?

The Eighth Amendment protects people from cruel and unusual punishment, and the ACLU said that the amendment “does not permit criminal penalties for involuntary acts,” citing how the Supreme Court held that a statute criminalizing a person’s addiction to drugs violated the Eighth Amendment in Robinson v. California (1962).

“A majority of the Court later agreed that people who are unhoused and addicted to alcohol could not be punished for being drunk in public — as alcoholism is a disease — and the unhoused ‘have no place else to go and no place else to be when they are drinking,’ the letter states.

The ACLU wrote that the court also relied on Martin v. City of Boise (2019), which held that an ordinance that prohibited sleeping in public spaces was unconstitutional as there were more unhoused individuals in a city than beds to accommodate them: “[A]s long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” 

The ACLU noted that there are “five shelters in Greensboro, but only two of these accommodate individual adults, and one is closed and the other is full. Therefore, because the threatened sweeps would punish people for involuntary conduct, they would violate the Eighth Amendment as well.”

“The same principle applies here. Greensboro police intend to seize the property of unhoused people, presumably pursuant to a local ordinance that criminalizes activities associated with homelessness. But people who are unhoused — something that is rarely ever a choice — may have nowhere else to rest,” the ACLU stated.

Why does the ACLU say the city is violating the Fourteenth Amendment?

The Fourteenth Amendment states that the government cannot “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Seizing and destroying the property of unhoused people without first giving them an opportunity to be heard by a neutral decision-maker would violate due process, the ACLU stated.

“Any significant taking of property by the State is within the purview of the Due Process Clause,” the ACLU wrote, adding that in order to establish a procedural due process violation, a plaintiff must establish three elements: 1) a constitutionally protected property interest, 2) a deprivation of that interest caused by government action, and 3) that the procedures used were constitutionally inadequate.

“Unhoused people undoubtedly have a property interest in their personal possessions…. These items almost certainly include medications, government documents, and protection from the environment such as shoes and clothing. The government infringes on that interest by seizing property,” the ACLU wrote.

What do the city’s policies say about the removal of people’s belongings?

According to procedural documents sent to TCB by Watts, if a camp is on city-owned/maintained property, GPD will organize a response with the following steps being taken:

  • A notice will be posted at the camp that is readily observable by camp occupants, notifying occupants that they must vacate the premises within seven days. However, the timeline “can be flexible.” The notification will state that the site will be cleaned up after the deadline and include the posting officer’s contact information.
  • A brochure with available resources for homeless individuals will be left at the campsite with the notification
  • If the occupants are on site, the officer will speak with them and explain that they “cannot occupy public property” and give them the posting information and resources brochure
  • Upon completion of the notification, an email detailing the location and approximate number of occupants of the camp is sent to homeless advocates (including Community Relations), with the primary agency being the Interactive Resource Center (IRC). An agreement is currently in place with the IRC that when they receive the notifications, they send representatives to the camp within 48 hours to make contact and discuss resources
  • Field Operations or Parks and Recreation maintenance (depending on whose property the camp is located on) will be notified with a requested date for clean up by GPD or Community Relations
  • Any personal belongings such as backpacks or other items that appear to be valuable will be collected and held for seven days from the date of clean-up.
  • GPD will perform a follow-up visit after the eighth day to ensure the clean-up has taken place and the occupants have left the area.

As for “proper disposal” of items at encampments, “All debris collected at homeless/transient camp[s] will be disposed of immediately at Transfer Station unless otherwise directed by management,” documents note. 

“Crew Members will notif[y] management of items collected that may require storage of be return[ed] such as government ID’s and valuables not consider[ed] trash.”

Further procedural language states that “in an effort to be responsive,” crews in the past have cleaned up camps and “inadvertently thrown out the occupants’ medications and other much needed items that have created very negative impacts on the people living in the camps.”

The document states that the city put this working procedure in place to be able to “give camp residents notice” and an “opportunity to protect their personal belongings,” adding that this procedure is viewed as “acceptable and respectful by the homeless community and their advocates.” 

Read the city’s policy here, here and here. Read the ACLU letter here.

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