One of the realities that every homeless person faces is a potential encounter with local law enforcement.
There are numerous reasons why these types of encounters occur. And, to be sure, there are those homeless who do bring it upon themselves.
Then there are those times when these "run-ins" with the law happen because local law enforcement officials behave in an overly zealous manner. Unfortunately, these latter types seldom end on a good note and either come close to being – or actually are – nothing less than police harassment.
A couple of days ago, some Park Rangers in St. Louis, Missouri, decided to take the law into their own hands with regards to one homeless encampment.
There were a number of homeless persons who had set up camp near the St. Patrick’s Center.
According the an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when Park Rangers – who are considered "park police" – arrived at the encampment, around 10 AM last Thursday, they quickly,
"… took tents, blankets, pillows, bags filled with belongings and, even, prescription medications and threw them into an orange garbage truck."
A second article (Nov 5) stated that the Rangers didn’t not explain "… why they were throwing away the homeless people’s possessions."
In addition, the Rangers ignored repeated pleas from the homeless themselves and their advocates from Catholic Charities and St. Patrick’s Center, to allow the homeless to retrieve their belongings. Instead, and in the presence of local journalists, the Rangers continued throwing the belongings into the garbage truck and then proceeded to crush them.
Their actions were in direct violation of a Federal lawsuit settlement which had been agreed to by City of St. Louis in 2005.
The first article mentioned that on page 3 of the agreement, the City of St. Louis – and its police department – had agreed, "… not destroy, damage, hide or cause to be abandoned the personal property of any homeless or homeless-appearing person."
Furthermore, the settlement made it illegal for law enforcement officials to "… harass homeless people or sweep them off the streets."
Although the City of St. Louis has a 10 PM curfew, "protocol" requires that those homeless who are "sleeping in a park" must be notified that they are in violation of the ordinance before they are made to move. Any personal belongs left behind can be considered "abandoned."
However, personal belongings which are taken into "custody," must be taken to the city’s health department and not destroyed, thereby allowing the homeless an opportunity to "reclaim" their possessions.
Let’s assume for a moment that the city’s Park Rangers had given proper notification to the encampment’s residents that they were in violation of the curfew and had to leave. That still does not explain why the rangers did not take the personal belongings of the homeless to the health department as required by "protocol."
I’m hoping that none of the rangers will be so obtuse as to justify their actions by saying that they were "just doing their jobs" or that they were simply "following orders."
Their behavior and utter disregard for the rights of members of the community – homeless or otherwise – is the most disgusting epitome of the abuse of power.
In my opinion, those rangers who were involved are unworthy to serve the community of St. Louis.
Speaking as spokesperson for Mayor Francis Slay and on behalf of the city, Bill Siedhoff, Director of the city’s Department of Human Services, promised that there would be an investigation into the incident: why it occurred; why the destruction of personal property; and who ordered it in the first place.
Of the incident itself, Mr. Siedhoff stated,
"We have a protocol that clearly was not followed in this case. All I can say is, we screwed up.
The protocol was totally ignored and that is appalling; it should have never happened. This is just really beyond belief. We apologize."
For those homeless who had their personal belongings destroyed, some of those items may have had sentimental value – and therefore are irreplaceable.
No apology – no matter how heartfelt or sincere – can change that.
There is one final thought that occurs to me.
The actions of those Park Rangers took what little those homeless folks had, reduced it to rubble and sent it off to the local landfill.
And at the end of the day, those very same Rangers went home to their nice warm beds.
I don’t question Mr. Siedhoff’s sincerity or his apology on behalf of the city.
However – sometimes saying "sorry" just doesn’t cut it.