A federal lawsuit filed Monday afternoon is challenging the constitutionality of the May 2 deadline that Eureka gave to nearly 150 homeless campers to vacate from city-owned property at Palco Marsh.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by local attorney Peter Martin on behalf of 11 homeless residents who currently live illegally in the marsh area. Speaking to the Times-Standard on Monday afternoon, Martin said he filed the lawsuit to prevent “a humanitarian disaster in the making.”
“When you’re going to be moving people and they have nowhere to go, that’s going to be problematic,” he said.
The lawsuit seeks a court order to prevent the city from enforcing its May 2 eviction and property seizure until adequate housing is made available and living assistance funding is provided to the evicted. The Eureka City Council, the Eureka Police Department, and EPD Chief Andrew Mills have been named in the lawsuit.
In March, the city announced it would give anyone camping until May 2 to voluntarily vacate the city property at the Palco Marsh in order for the city to begin the construction of the Waterfront Trail in mid-May. The city also plans to demolish concrete structures at the marsh known as the “Drying Sheds” after a lawsuit filed by a local resident who was injured at the site. The city paid the resident $400,000 and must remove the Drying Sheds by this summer or lose its insurance coverage for the area, according to the city.
Eureka City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson received a copy of the lawsuit on Monday afternoon and said she had yet to review it in detail when contacted by the Times-Standard.
Day-Wilson said this is not the first lawsuit to challenge the city’s camping ordinance.
“Our camping ordinance has survived every legal challenge,” Day-Wilson said, stating the last challenge in early 2015 was decided in the city’s favor.
Eureka Mayor Frank Jager said he thinks the city is on the right track and he expected some sort of challenge to emerge.
“They’re trespassing on public land,” Jager said of the Palco Marsh campers. “They’re causing environmental damage to sensitive wetlands in the bay. We’ve got plenty of places for people to go. We’re bending over backwards to try to find places for people to go.”
Martin claims in his lawsuit that the city’s intention to evict residents from the marsh without having adequate housing in place violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, Martin argued that the city is punishing his clients for being homeless.
“The actions for which they will be punished are involuntary and necessary for survival — going to sleep at night, covering oneself from the cold, seeking shelter from the rain – and essentially criminalize the status of being homeless in Eureka,” the lawsuit states.
Jager holds a different point of view.
“By leaving them there, we’re subjugating them to cruel and unusual punishment,” Jager said. “It’s horrible place to be.”
The lawsuit claims the eviction also violates the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to provide other means of shelter, thus violating the homeless campers’ right to life and liberty.
“Defendants’ planned eviction of Plaintiffs and all other homeless residents of the Palco Marsh threatens to expose them to the dangerous condition of living on the streets without shelter and does so with deliberate indifference to that danger,” the lawsuit claims.
Martin also alleges the city is violating the Fourth Amendment by subjugating campers to unreasonable search and seizure by allowing for the homeless residents’ property to be seized by city officials.
In addition, Martin claims the city is violating the U.S. Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, which requires living assistance to be allocated to people who are displaced by federally funded projects or programs.
Eureka Parks and Recreation Director Myles Slattery said there is no federal funding currently being used for the trail project.
“There’s absolutely no federal funding being used for construction of Phase A of the Waterfront Trail whose alignment goes through the marsh area from Truesdale to Del Norte (Street),” he wrote in an email to the Times-Standard.
Regarding the Waterfront Trail Project, Jager said “it’s gotta happen.”
“I wouldn’t think that any judge in his right mind would agree to an injunction,” he said. “They’ve had over a year to find other places.”
Jager said that the city and county have been working to secure more housing for the homeless, including repurposing the Multiple Assistance Center, using local homeless shelters, and the declaration of a shelter crisis by the Eureka City Council last month.
The council recently approved adding a temporary shelter proposal to its shelter crisis declaration that proposes to house up to 40 homeless residents on Mercer-Fraser Company property at West Third and Commercial streets in Eureka. The proposal has generated threats of litigation against the city by property and business owners near the proposed site.
The city is currently seeking proposals for temporary homeless solutions.
While Martin acknowledged that the city has worked to find housing solutions, he said not enough housing has been made available.
“So far those efforts have not come to fruition so our position is they need to delay this eviction until there is sufficient housing to accommodate the people who are living there now or at least another campground somewhere else,” he said.
Martin said he is hoping that a judge will approve his motion for a temporary injunction before the May 2 date.
Jager expressed disappointment that Martin and some other local entities and government agencies have not attempted to work with the city to deal with the homeless issue at the marsh, and called their decision to remain silent “unconscionable.”
“Peter Martin ought to be working with us,” Jager said. “Not against us.”
Attempts to contact EPD Chief Andrew Mills were not immediately returned.
Houston, Will. “Lawsuit seeks to suspend Eureka’s marsh eviction deadline” Eureka Times-Standard [Eureka] 25 April 2016