In what civil liberties lawyers call an extraordinary concession, the City of Los Angeles has agreed to pay $500 each to 41 street people whose belongings were destroyed in a police sweep in June.
For the attorneys who negotiated the agreement, it marked an important victory that they said should discourage officials from any further such seizures.
But for the 41 men and women who lost most of their possessions in the raid, the windfall provided a chance to try to get off the streets, and most were excitedly planning ways to do that.
While the city did not admit any wrongdoing in the agreement, and there was no formal guarantee that such a sweep would not occur again, attorney James H. Davis, who filed the claims on behalf of the homeless men and women, said, "I believe this has (already) affected the attitude and practice (of police) everywhere in this city."
It was not clear why the city settled the claims without a court fight. Los Angeles, like most cities, rejects virtually all claims against it, forcing aggrieved parties to drop the issue or file a lawsuit. City Atty. James K. Hahn did not respond Thursday to requests for an interview. Other than to confirm the agreement, city officials would not discuss the case, saying that they plan to hold a press conference next week.
As news of the $20,500 settlement buzzed along the homeless' grapevine downtown, all sorts of plans were being made for how to spend the money. But just about all of those involved mentioned the hope that the $500 will help them get a roof over their heads.
'Trying to Get Ahead'
"We're going to get a place and get married," said Joseph Wilson, 27, who, with his fiancee, has been sleeping on the streets while attending National Technical School to study word processing. "I'm trying to get ahead, I'm trying to have a future. . . . And I really want to get off the street."
"I'm going to get an apartment until I can get into the (military) service," said Rick James, 26. "This money means a great deal to me."
Joseph Gabriel, 48, said he hopes to "get a place and get off the street. The streets are making me old." An address, he said, will make it easier for him to again receive benefits under a medical disability program.
But even as the joy swept through an encampment on 1st Street, some of the homeless' most vocal advocates were warning that $500 will do little to change the lot of people who need education, job training, medical and legal help to put their lives back on track.
"Five hundred dollars is not going to get anybody off the street," said Ted Hayes, an organizer of the homeless and one of the 41 to file a claim against the city. "It's cliche answers like this that are part of the problem," said Hayes, who forecast that most of the 41 will be back on the streets in a few weeks.
The claims against the city resulted from a police sweep of two homeless camps in the shadow of City Hall along 1st Street. The indigents had been camped in "cardboard condos" along the sidewalk for about a week, after being driven out of a small nearby park by state officials.
Police officers on the homeless detail said they spotted the camp and called the Bureau of Street Maintenance to supply two skip loaders and two dump trucks to scoop up and remove the belongings of an estimated 50 street people at the site.
Authorities said they gave people at the camp 30 minutes to clear out their gear. But those who were away--finding a meal or looking for day labor--returned to learn that all of their possessions were gone. Some attempted to retrieve their goods, but within an hour the belongings had been buried in a San Fernando Valley landfill.
Members of the camp said they lost everything from medicine and identification papers to clothing, small appliances and bedrolls in the sweep.
Cites Constitutional Grounds
Davis said he filed the claims on constitutional grounds that bar unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
"When all you have is one shirt, that's a big item," he said.
The city will issue checks to the men and women Wednesday at the Union Rescue Mission. Davis said he had arranged for Wilshire Bank to cash the checks on the spot.
He and Gary L. Blasi, a Legal Aid attorney, said similar claims and lawsuits are now pending in several counties and cities around the state, including Santa Ana. The payment, they said, is the first of its kind to homeless that they were aware of.
Mayor Tom Bradley, who ordered changes in the city policy on homeless sweeps after the June incident and the filing of the claims, was en route to Korea to attend the Olympic Games and was not available for comment.
Police disputed the attorneys' claim that the settlement would change policy.