Lenka John was asleep in her home – a tent at a public park – when a cleanup crew rudely woke her up last May, and told her to vacate the park early that same morning. The workers ordered her to leave Meadowbrook Park and told her that if her property was not moved soon, it would be thrown in the back of a trash truck.
Lenka couldn’t afford to have her life’s belongings thrown in a trash truck, so she started to pack. This proved difficult as she uses a wheelchair and has mobility impairments. She asked the crew for help, explaining her disabilities, but they ignored her. After packing what she could, she began rolling away from the park with her service dog and a few bags. Because of her mobility impairments, she was unable to take all her property with her and had to leave many of her belongings behind. As she left the park, she saw the workers throwing away the property she had to leave behind in the park into the back of a trash truck. This included her walker, a blood pressure cuff, and a folder full of medical records she needed for her disability benefits application. She desperately begged the workers to let her at least retrieve her paperwork, but they told her it was too late—the papers were already in the back of a compactor truck.
“Without my medical files,” Lenka said, “I had to start the long application process for disability assistance all over again.”
This is not the first time the City of San Bernardino has attacked its unhoused residents. After months of investigation, the ACLU SoCal found that the city regularly violates the rights of its unhoused residents by seizing and destroying their property with little warning and no recourse. The situation is even worse for people with disabilities, whose requests for assistance and accommodations go ignored.
Instead of providing unhoused people with safe, affordable homes, the city has embarked on a plan to push them out of sight.
As the city manager put it during a May 3 city council meeting: “Our goal is to bring to you a proposed plan that will allow us to go after these encampments because that’s what people are complaining about.” Since then, the city has forced unhoused people out of at least four parks. In each of these clearances, the city destroyed people’s property and forced them to move. Workers ignored the needs of people with physical disabilities, who make up nearly 20 percent of San Bernardino’s unhoused population. These efforts are poised to expand, as the city seeks to double the number of personnel tasked with seizing and destroying unhoused people’s property.
For San Bernardino residents with no access to housing and few possessions, losing any property during orders to move can be devastating. Even as temperatures regularly top 100 degrees, the city destroys tents, tarps, and other protection from the elements – often the only shade available to unhoused people.
The consequences can be especially brutal for people with disabilities, most of whom cannot safely comply with orders to move. Displacements have forced people who rely on wheelchairs into treacherous ravines and roadside encampments that further limit their mobility. Forced displacements also scatter people, leaving case managers unable to locate their clients and setting back community members, like Lenka.
San Bernardino’s clearances are not only breathtakingly cruel; they are also illegal. It is well established that seizing property and immediately destroying it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes clear that government entities, like the city crews that displace unhoused San Bernardino residents, are required to provide reasonable accommodations when requested by people with disabilities. By refusing to engage in the accommodation process, the city has discriminated against residents with disabilities. The ACLU SoCal is challenging these unlawful practices to ensure that people’s rights are respected regardless of their disability or housing status.
Thanks to the advocacy by unhoused people and the ACLU SoCal, in January 2024, the U.S. District Court granted our preliminary injunction motion. The court’s order will bar all unhoused encampment removals/displacements throughout the entire City of San Bernardino. The court found that the city’s practice of destroying people’s personal property violates the Fourth Amendment and due process. Importantly, the court also found that the city’s encampment removals and failure to accommodate people’s disabilities violates the ADA.
Lenka hopes the lawsuit will prevent others from going through the hardship she experienced at the hands of the city. “It’s wrong for San Bernardino to violate our rights this way,” she said. “Living outside is hard, and even harder when you have disabilities. The city should be helping us—not hurting us.”