//Class Action Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of the Unhoused 

Class Action Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of the Unhoused 

By Bob McCloskey | bobmccloskey06@gmail.com

On February 21, 2020, Fresno Police Department officers assaulted and injured Lewis Brown at a homeless encampment near Highway 180 and Hughes Avenue in West Fresno. The encampment was not located on city property. Brown had been living there cooperatively with other residents for over a year. Recently, Brown opened up about his experiences that day.

“I had just woken up, starting to do my daily chores, fed my dog, and I saw the (FPD) Homeless Task Force walking up,” Brown begins.

The police officer instructed Brown to leave, telling him the property belonged to the city. Brown explained that it was, in fact, private property. Still, the officer insisted – stating that Brown would be arrested if he did not move.

“I go walking back to my tent with my dog and had my friend tie my dog up. The police officer said I told [the other residents] they didn’t have to move. I said I didn’t say that, and then I started packing my stuff. The officer looks at me and says, oh yeah, grabs my arm and says, stop resisting, right off the top. He threw me to the ground with four other cops, and from then on, they were beating me up,” shares Brown.  

“As I was packing my stuff, I did nothing against their orders. They never told me I was under arrest. They put their knees on my back, rubbed my face into the ground, busted my eye open. And I just had eye surgery three weeks before, a cornea transplant, they messed it up.”

“They picked me up off the ground and took me to the police vehicle and kick[ed] my legs out from under me, then said, have a seat … they beat me up for about three minutes with my arms up way over my head. In court, they said they never saw someone treated like that, and I’m lucky I’m still walking.”

“I’m in a lot of pain. I’m 62 years old, my knees are bad, and the police abuse made my pain worse. They searched me while I was lying there. They yanked me up, called the paramedics, and arrested me while I was in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital.”

Initially, the prosecution dropped the resulting charges against Brown quickly after his arrest. However, according to Brown, the charges were again pursued after his attorney filed suit against the city. Brown viewed the act as retaliation. After two years defending against the allegations, Brown was ultimately found not guilty. Now, he is the named plaintiff in a lawsuit awaiting judicial approval to move forward as a “class-action.”

The lawsuit is filed by Attorney Kevin Little on behalf of Lewis Brown and all others similarly situated. The city estimates there are over 4,000 unhoused individuals. However, advocates estimate the number to be twice that. In addition to the City of Fresno, the lawsuit is filed against the Police Chief, former Police Chief, the Mayor, and five police officers involved in the incident. It is also filed against unknown law enforcement officers who may have engaged in unlawful conduct throughout the city.

The complaint seeks damages, declaratory and injunctive relief, and demands a jury trial. It cites Brown’s case as an example of how the city mistreats the unhoused. This mistreatment includes the constant removal to other locations, taking and destroying personal property, using excessive and unreasonable force, attempting to silence and punish those that advocate for themselves, and restricting other advocates from assisting the unhoused.

Brown sustained injuries to his eye, face, knees, back, and torso. The officers had no reason to believe Brown was violent or armed. Yet, they used unreasonable and excessive force, all of which is documented on police video cameras. In addition, the officers on the scene ordered the destruction of all Brown’s property. The destruction of his property directly violates a court order and injunction issued in Kincaid v. Fresno over a decade ago.

After his release from custody, Brown spoke publicly about his experience. Longtime Homeless Advocate Dez Martinez and journalist Mike Rhodes assisted Brown in helping him share his story. Rhodes covered the incident, which was published in the Community Alliance newspaper. Shortly after speaking out, Brown was charged criminally for resisting arrest, possession, trespassing, refusing to leave private property, and unlawful lodging. However, Brown was ultimately found innocent of all charges by a jury after only 90 minutes of deliberation.

For many years, the Fresno Police Department and other city agencies have harassed the unhoused residents of Fresno. Many have been arrested simply because of their homeless status. Many have been issued citations for things that result from being homeless like loitering, trespassing, public urination, having unlicensed dogs, littering, and other conditions that are difficult to avoid while homeless. Harassment and arrests result in incarceration for petty offenses and having warrants issued against them for failure to appear in court or failing to pay a fine.

The city has continued to engage in cleanup sweeps of homeless encampments over many years. Sometimes these sweeps result in the belongings of the unhoused being treated like trash and thrown away. Shelters, tents, clothing, pets, bedding, medicines, appliances, food, utensils, and priceless items of sentimental value have been thrown away, often on very short or no notice. Many advocates and others believe the city’s strategy is to force people to move from one location to another continually. Although the city and county have received millions of dollars for housing and homeless services in the last 20 years and many more millions recently, they’ve implemented no permanent solution. The Housing First approach has been ignored entirely, and instead, in its place is a failed system of temporary shelters, transitional housing, and limited services for the chronically homeless. A statewide system of shelter operators, service providers, and public agencies is wasting billions of dollars on perpetuating a self-serving and failed industry that perpetuates homelessness. For example, Fresno has not provided any permanent supportive housing for those suffering on the streets since 2016. Instead, the city is remodeling motels along Parkway, a motel corridor, and warehousing those removed from encampments in run-down motels. The city dubs this “temporary housing.”

There are many different reasons why people become homeless. Sometimes a family crisis or other crisis starts the process, a job loss, a health condition that leads to bankruptcy, a mental health crisis, falling into addiction and substance abuse, losing foster care housing, being evicted for various reasons, being a victim of domestic violence, cannot afford a rent increase, the list goes on. But poverty, inequality, institutionalized racism, and the domination of a white, patriarchal elite are the root causes. Our capitalist economic system perpetuates it, and our amoral culture allows it to continue. If we are serious about ending homelessness, we must recognize that.

Brown further shared his personal experience as a member of the unhoused community:

What is a day like? Rough?

“Yeah, it’s a struggle. I don’t have any money. I don’t have a vehicle, so I can’t make money.”

How long have you been homeless?

“Since 2014. I had a job, a house, my kid lived with me. I lost my house in 2012. I went to prison after I bought a car for car parts and didn’t know it was stolen. I got 16 months in prison for stolen property.”

Do you have relatives?

“Yeah, my mom’s still alive. My sister works for the county. I don’t want to stay with my mom and put a burden on her. My son got killed by the cops in a high-speed chase, only 21 years old, in 2014. He stayed in a coma for seven months with a busted spine and internal injuries, and then he passed away. I had just gotten out [of prison].”

It’s hard to get a job and rent a place, right?

“Yeah, I need a house. It’s hard for me to get a job, I’m injured, I can’t see in one eye.”

What do you think about the housing and support system?

“Well, everyone out here wants a place to stay, to shower and sleep, but the way they treat people in the shelter system is bad. They got a lot of messed-up rules. The staff mistreats people. Then they only give you the room for 90 days. I don’t want it. Just because we’re homeless, we shouldn’t be treated like animals. They say their mission is to help us get back into society, but they don’t do anything to help. They’re supposed to help get food stamps and other services, but they don’t.”

Do people get mental health or substance abuse services?

“I don’t think so, from what I know.”

What do you hear from people about why they are homeless?

“Because of a crisis, something happened in their family… it’s not because they’re drug addicts. That’s what everybody thinks. There are good people out here. Everybody’s had jobs. I know electricians, carpenters, construction workers. People have a tragedy; they lose their families. It’s rough.”

What should the city and county focus on?

“The tiny home villages, permanent housing, permanent apartments, and then services if people need them. The city needs to do more street outreach. All they have is Poverello. The city has good intentions, I think… of getting rid of us!”     

As the lawsuit proceeds, a team of lawyers will be gathering statements and depositions from the unhoused persons in Fresno who have been mistreated by the Fresno Police Department, other city employees, or have had property taken and discarded by the city.       

This story will continue to update as more details unfold. Updates will be included in subsequent issues of the Fresno Flyer.

Bob McCloskey is an organizer for the Fresno Homeless Union.