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Homeless allowed to stay in Des Moines camps

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 11:48 a.m. CST

DES MOINES (AP) — Three homeless people who appealed a city eviction can stay in their makeshift camps in Des Moines because of safety concerns, according to a ruling by an administrative hearing officer.

Eviction notices were posted Jan. 17 at five makeshift camps set up by homeless people warning that city officials would forcibly remove or arrest individuals who remained by the end of the month. But late Monday, Officer Cassandra Webster decided it was safer for the individuals to stay in their camps.

“The harm avoided is greater than the harm done, where the threats of sleep deprivation and freezing to death are greater than the general unsafe conditions of the homeless camps,” Webster said in her ruling. “There do not appear to be any other options for these people.”

Webster referred the case to the city attorney for further consideration, though it wasn’t immediately clear if the city planned to appeal.

A city ordinance bars camping on public property. City officials also said the eviction notices were prompted by complaints from the public about the camps, including one under the Martin Luther Kind Parkway Bridge.

Three people living in a camp — Jim Loveland, Eric Randall, Jeanne Zeitler — appealed the eviction through Iowa Legal Aid, an organization that offers free legal help. Their attorney argued during a hearing Jan. 31 that they had nowhere to go and no better alternatives, and argued that unlawful activity could be justified when it would prevent more serious harm.

But the city argued of inherent dangers with the camps, including fire safety issues. Des Moines Fire Marshal Tom Patava said his department was 20 times more likely to respond to a fire at a homeless camp than a private residence.

At the time, a nearby shelter was at full capacity and the overflow was expected to continue because of the extreme cold, said Deirdre Henriquez of Primary Heath Care Outreach, a nonprofit community health center. And some camp residents said they felt safer and more secure in their camps than if they were stuffed into overcrowded shelters.

The decision applies only to the three individuals who filed the appeal. Dennis Groenenboom, director of Iowa Legal Air, said it’s up to the city whether the ruling will have broader applicability.