Last December in federal court, Dan Bamberg was trying to figure out how homeless men and women could store their belongings safely and out of sight rather than carry them around everywhere. Transport containers of the type used on ships and railroad cars came to mind. Bamberg, chief deputy attorney for the City of San Diego, was negotiating with the Isaiah Project, a small local nonprofit, and the American Civil Liberties Union. On December 2, 2009, the two organizations had filed a class-action lawsuit against the City, arguing that several months earlier, its Environmental Services Department unconstitutionally removed from the street the property of 30 to 35 homeless people and crushed it in the backs of garbage trucks. The possessions lost included medications and family pictures in addition to clothing, blankets, and other goods. According to the plaintiffs, City notices giving advance warning of abandoned property abatement had been torn down, preventing the owners from knowing that their property was in danger of being taken.
Eventually, the opponents decided to settle out of court, although initial proposals to give victims hamburgers or gift certificates to a local clothing store were quickly rejected. But one step was easy, Bamberg tells me. “Previously,” he says, “the City would post a sign that said, ‘Hey, get your stuff out of here, and if you don’t, when we come back, we will consider it to be abandoned and we’re going to take it away.…’ Now, not only will the notices be posted on the areas to be abated, but those same notices will be posted at the homeless service centers in [East Village], such as Father Joe’s, the Neil Good Day Center, and God’s Extended Hand. We also agreed that the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team would go by every day after the posting, right up to the day of abatement, to remind the people.”
But further negotiations were “about to fall apart,” says Bamberg, “because I couldn’t get the transport containers idea into flesh and blood.” That’s when police sergeant Rick Schnell, head of the Homeless Outreach Team, called Bamberg’s attention to a 20,000-square-foot building on skid row in Los Angeles that was storing the property of 600 people on the streets. It sounded promising, so Bamberg rounded up the negotiators and enlisted Schnell to drive them to L.A. in a police van to tour the operation. In all, the group totaled eight, including Gerry Limpic of the Isaiah Project and David “Water Man” Ross, known to many as San Diego’s most tireless homeless advocate.
One key to the success of the L.A. facility, called the Central City East Association Check-in Center, is the use of 96-gallon trash barrels by each person wanting to store possessions. The L.A. center operates with a strict set of rules to keep the operation orderly and charges no money for the storage.
The tour impressed enough that the deal for how to compensate those who lost their belongings in 2009 would now include a similar check-in center in San Diego. “I made it my mission,” says Bamberg, “to find some brick and mortar to do it.” He tells me he went to the Centre City Development Corporation and was promised a 4000-square-foot building, filled only with junk, at 917 Ninth Avenue across from the downtown library. The Isaiah Project would get a year’s use of the building for one dollar. After that, low-income housing is scheduled to replace the structure and a parking lot at the corner of Ninth and Broadway.
“I also got the Environmental Services Department to agree to give us the bins that the stuff would be kept in,” Bamberg added. To pay for the rest of the plan, the San Diego City Council on January 11 approved $150,000, an amount that was increased to $160,000 by a donation from the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a codefendant in the original lawsuit with less liability than the City. The final amount, after approval by the federal court, would be divided into three: $20,000 to compensate the original property losers, $40,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, and $100,000 to pay for a small staff, insurance, utilities, and other expenses at the new Ninth Avenue facility. The Isaiah Project’s Gerry Limpic was named as the storage center’s executive director, and while final court approval would have to wait a little longer, the City began releasing money for the organization to get to work as soon as it could.
Limpic, Ross, and a number of homeless volunteers then went to work cleaning out the building. They were joined by residents of the Lighthouse, a program at 14th and Market for early-release ex-offenders. During the cleanup, the City delivered 500 trash bins, twice as many as could fit inside the building. The Lighthouse contingent assembled 250 of the bins, arranging them in long rows with aisles in between wide enough to move the containers in and out. The remaining bins have been stored in the back for the time when a larger building can be found.
On February 2, the facility, christened the Water Man Check-In Center, opened for business. Six days later, it was filled to capacity. To handle the shortfall, Limpic tells me, he went out and bought a slew of 33-gallon totes, stacking them along the walls and increasing the check-in center’s capacity to 328 containers. “True, they’re not as big as the other bins,” he says, “but for somebody who has only a bag and backpack, they work fine.
“Except for a couple of things like that,” Limpic continues, “we are modeled totally on the Los Angeles check-in center. We use their computer system, follow their rules, and assign all customers numbered bins. They can come in and ask us to bring their bins out into a common area that we try to keep up as much like a living room as possible. A local artist named Walter Redondo came in and painted a few small murals on the walls.
“The most important rule is that the people sign in once a week so we know they haven’t just dumped their things and taken off. We give them a grace period if they don’t come in some week, but after a while, we pack them out, though we keep their things in the back for 60 days. There are 50 to 100 people every day trying to get in here.”
Limpic guesses that 20 to 30 people have given up their bins after getting jobs in the six months the center has been open. “So far, I haven’t kept a record,” he says. “That’s something I’m going to start doing. But think about it. You can’t go into a job interview with your things on your back. And if you leave them with someone on the street, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll be gone when you return.”
But whatever happened to compensating the original victims of the City’s trash compactors? Since those folks have yet to receive a dime, critics are popping up, including someone who sent an anonymous email to city council members prior to their July 12 meeting. Dan Bamberg also received the email. “Where’s the money, David Ross and Gerry Limpic?” read the email in part. “While the victims were left with nothing to store, Isaiah Project took the money and had a private office made for its staff.” Says Bamberg, “The email doesn’t come right out and accuse Ross and Limpic of putting the money in their pockets, but that’s the implication. Whoever wrote it comes off as somewhat persuasive, although factually it’s completely untrue.”
Nevertheless, Ross found himself before the council on July 12 trying to set the record straight. For Ross, the appearance had an air of seriousness quite at odds with his usual bantering at most council meetings, where he appeals for more public money to spend on the down-and-out. His approach is often oblique. “I have been repeatedly telling the council,” he says, “that if they want to increase the tourist dollars that come into San Diego, they must remove the blight of shopping carts piled high with people’s junk from the views of visitors. But from the dais, they stare into their laptops, and I often can’t tell whether I’m looking at the Nuremberg Trials or The Last Supper painting.”
The ambush that Ross, 72, defused at city council was nothing compared to a physical beating he and another man suffered in mid-June. They were accosted over the same issue, however, that the email to council members brought up. It had been a long time, claimed the assailant, since those who lost their belongings in the fall of 2009 were supposed to get paid. He was sure Ross got the money. And with swings to the face, he sent Ross and his companion to the hospital. The assailant is now serving time for felony battery and elder abuse.
“I’m glad the guy’s in jail,” Ross tells me, “but I understand the problem he was ranting about. The process of reimbursing the original victims has taken way too long.” The law firm of Scott Dreher, who represented the Isaiah Project in the negotiations over a settlement, had been working on finding an administrator to identify and locate all those who were entitled to compensation. There are professional administrators who do such work in class-action suits. But Dreher tells me by phone that the cheapest professional he could find wanted $6000, which he felt would cut too severely into the $20,000 settlement for the original victims. In the final weeks of June, he was still hoping to find a better deal.
Yet on July 1, although Dreher had gone to London to “help my daughter move back home from school,” his law firm circulated a “Status Update” in East Village to alert victims of progress. “A settlement of this case was approved by the Court on May 10, 2011,” read the flyer, which added that the search for an administrator was “nearly completed. The Claims Process is scheduled to begin this month and you will receive additional Notice…and an opportunity to submit a claim. Everything should be wrapped up by mid-September at the latest.” Finally, the flyer stated, “David Ross has not received, and will not receive, any money from this process or from this case.”
By this time, says Ross, he was calling Judge Gallo to complain that the distribution of money to victims was taking too long. “When the judge heard that,” Ross tells me, “he got hotter than a match and called all the attorneys back to court to get them on the ball. By the way, if only our attorneys had published that status update earlier, I might not have gotten beat up.”
The so-called new meeting in court was actually a teleconference call on July 7 among the judge and all the lawyers (Dreher was still in London), according to the City’s Dan Bamberg. “Scott Dreher is the one who asked for the teleconference, and I never once saw the judge get angry in this case,” says Bamberg. “I don’t think Ross spoke with the judge, something he’s not supposed to do anyway. He probably left a phone message in his court.”
The result of the teleconference was a new arrangement. Dreher is now performing the role of settlement administrator. Following a standard procedure in class-action payouts, says Dreher, Judge Gallo specified the following schedule. A noticing period that started on July 22 and runs until August 22 will allow the original victims to state what they lost and make claims. They will then have until September 22 to comment and complain about the settlement and to opt out of it. All claims must be in by October 21. A report to the court about which people are to receive money, and how much, is then due on November 15. On November 22, checks will be cut and delivered to the recipients.
Meanwhile, the future of the Water Man Check-In Center is up in the air. “The manager of our building told me that the wrecking ball will be coming through next January and that we might want to be out by then,” says Ross. “But I don’t think the city council would like to see the 100,000 pounds of people’s belongings we’re storing go back on the streets.” Both Ross and Bamberg are looking at other buildings in East Village that might be used in the future. “We’re hoping that the success of the center will convince the council and other donors to help continue its work,” says Bamberg. ■