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Homeless in New York City plan lawsuit after police allegedly threw out their IDs

A homeless person sleeps on a sidewalk, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015 in New York. Homeless advocacy groups are threatening legal action against the city over its plans to conduct an aggressive homeless outreach program. The groups say they fear police involvement in the campaign will result in more arrests of homeless people. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

A homeless person sleeps on a sidewalk, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015 in New York. Homeless advocacy groups are threatening legal action against the city over its plans to conduct an aggressive homeless outreach program. The groups say they fear police involvement in the campaign will result in more arrests of homeless people. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

As members of the city's new homeless outreach team fanned out Monday in a campaign to persuade people to leave the streets, three homeless New Yorkers filed paperwork to sue over an unrelated effort to remove them, saying police wrongly tossed identifying documents and family photos into a dump truck.

Jesus Morales and two others say they were sleeping in an encampment outside a school in Manhattan at about 5 a.m. on Oct. 2 when police and a sanitation crew arrived, woke them, told them they had to move and tossed their stuff, including a birth certificate and Social Security cards. Some said they were kicked and shoved by the officers.

"They grabbed my clothes and threw it all in the garbage truck," Morales, 42, said in Spanish on Monday at a news conference, attended by about a dozen homeless New Yorkers, to announce notice of the claim. Morales said he's been homeless nearly 16 years.

"I can't even afford a room," he said. "We are many, and we don't have money to live here."

The notice of claim, the first step in filing a lawsuit against the city, was prepared by the New York Civil Liberties Union after they obtained security footage of the night through a Freedom of Information Law request. Attorney Alexis Karteron said their belongings weren't worth much, "but the emotional cost is priceless."

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A spokeswoman for the mayor said the encounter between the homeless and police involved illegal trespassing on school grounds.

"That said, we will review our protocols concerning the seizure and disposition of personal property to ensure that it can be reclaimed by its rightful owners," spokeswoman Karen Hinton said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that the city has had success in persuading some who live in the camps to accept city services.

"Think about the encampments — settlements of people living out in the open or living under a railroad tunnel. Sleeping in the exposed air, often drug dens. This was not an acceptable way of life for those people," he said. "We're not going to tolerate it — for them, let alone for the communities around them. What a horrible message it sends about quality of life."

But homeless New Yorkers and advocates said they were concerned the mayor's approach is too aggressive. Linda Lewis of Picture the Homeless questioned what would happen if all 55,000 homeless citizens were sheltered.

"Then what? There isn't enough housing for them — where do they go after shelter?" she asked.

Some homeless said they preferred the streets to shelters, where they felt unsafe. An audit by the comptroller's office found too few employees oversee the nonprofit organizations that operate shelters.

Meanwhile, about 50 outreach workers from three nonprofit groups canvassed Monday as part of the city's Home Stat outreach program. Allison McCullough of the Goddard Riverside Community Center interacted with about 10 people by midday, and one conversation was cut short when police arrested a man on an assault charge. She said connecting on the street is a challenge.

"People aren't always forthcoming," she said. "It can take months. It can take years."

She spoke with 30-year-old William Hardnet, who has been homeless since he was laid off from a cooking job at an Atlantic City casino six years ago.

"I like their program so much more because they actually come out and interact with the homeless," he said. "It shows that it's coming from the heart."

He said he prefers to sleep in a convenience store doorway than to go to a shelter. Still, he said, he plans to work with McCullough.

"I would like for someone to come with me to see how it's set up," he said. "I'm definitely trying to get inside this winter."

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