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Mark Merin’s battle with City Hall

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Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin is once again in the spotlight.

This time, he’s being quoted by the local media for his role in a federal class-action case about homeless people’s constitutional rights and personal property. And, in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, Merin’s work with Safe Ground is mentioned. The article, titled “Homeless in Sacramento: Welcome to the New Tent Cities,” focuses on Sacramento’s homeless and the city’s ordinance against camping.

These are only two of many examples of Merin’s highly visible and controversial advocacy work for Sacramento’s homeless.

Earlier this week, a federal jury released its verdict in Lehr v. City of Sacramento, finding that the city has mismanaged homeless people’s belongings

Merin is representing a group of homeless people in the lawsuit. When police officers enforce the city’s ordinance against camping outside, they seize homeless people’s belongings, Merin claimed in an April 1 court document.

“We, who live in our comfortable homes, surrounded by all the clutter that we’ve accumulated, may not realize how devastating it is when someone comes in and just grabs the few things that you do have,” Merin said in an interview with The Sacramento Press earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm noted this week that the jury did not fault the city on four or six claims. The city may appeal the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Trimm said.

Merin is requesting compensation for his clients as well as attorney’s fees. He explained earlier this month how the payment process for his fees works.

“If we are successful and we win, in many cases, we’re entitled to get fees awarded by the court,” Merin said. “There’s a procedure by which we show how much time we put into it. The court evaluates the work and assigns an amount of money, and then we get that.”

In addition to criticizing the city’s interactions with the homeless in his lawsuit, Merin has appeared before the City Council to argue for Safe Ground. 

“The minimum demand that is being made with Safe Ground is (to) designate some place (for the homeless). Don’t even give it to us, but allow us to take a space and say, ‘homeless people can be here, can leave their stuff here, can use this as a staging area to do something else,’ ” Merin said earlier this month in an interview.

“But if they’re constantly having to guard their stuff … then they can’t even go anywhere. They can’t even go to the doctor’s appointment for fear of losing it.”

In September 2009, Merin provided his property as place for the homeless to stay.

Councilman Rob Fong said he has observed Merin’s comments to the City Council. Fong said he has also attended board meetings on homelessness at which Merin was present.

“My impression of Mark is I think he’s a very strident advocate,” Fong said. “I think he’s a thoughtful guy, too.”

Fong has worked on the issue of homelessness through the local Faith and Homeless Families program, in which religious groups assist homeless families with housing.

“I think, given where I am, I’ve tried to work within the system and to improve the system,” Fong said. “I think Mark has a different vantage point. I just think we’re probably both working in different ways for the same thing.”

Merin has also taken on Sacramento County in the past. His lawsuit over homeless people’s belongings included Sacramento County, along with the city, when he filed it in 2007. But court documents show the county settled the case last year.

Meanwhile, John Kraintz, president of Safe Ground, praised Merin’s work with the group, composed mostly of homeless people. Merin helps the group communicate its views to the City Council, Kraintz said.

“His input is always very valuable,” Kraintz said.

While the next step in the lawsuit over homeless people’s property is unclear, it’s apparent that Merin will play a big role in it.

Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. 

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