By Brad Poole
TUCSON, Ariz. (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that the city of Tucson, Arizona, can forcibly remove scores of coffin-like "pods" set up on city sidewalks to protest treatment of the homeless but that the demonstrators can continue to camp out on the pavement.
Under the decision by U.S. District Judge David Bury in a federal lawsuit stemming from the Occupy movement more than three years ago, the protesters have until Friday evening to clear away the brightly painted plywood boxes, city spokeswoman Lane Mandle said.
“At that point, we'll remove them,” Mandle said.
The encampment of tents and twin-bed-sized pods stretches along several downtown city blocks near a small park by City Hall.
Occupy organizers who began sleeping in the park itself in 2011 to protest what they called criminalization of homelessness sued the city, claiming the arrest of campers there violated their constitutional rights to free speech and free expression.
After a federal judge ruled that the Occupy gatherings were a valid form of protest but that the city could restrict overnight camping in the park, the demonstrators moved to adjacent sidewalks.
In recent months, the encampment has grown to include about 40 of the “dream pods” in which some of the campers sleep and store their belongings.
But the plywood structures drew renewed complaints to police and municipal officials, and last week the Pima County Health Department cited the city for loose dogs and human waste near the campers.
On March 5, police raided the camp, arresting six people on suspicion of drug offenses. Occupy organizer and camp leader Jonathan McClane, a plaintiff in the original lawsuit, was charged with the sale and possession of marijuana.
He did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Homeless camper Curtis Fountila, 24, was cited for urinating near City Hall on Wednesday. Fountila, a California native who stayed with friends and under bridges until he moved into a sidewalk tent, was unsure where he would go if he was forced out. "I'll be all right," he said.
Judge Bury ruled that the city has the discretion to order removal of the plywood pods but that the protesters otherwise could remain camped on the sidewalks.
Representatives of social service agencies visited the camp Wednesday, talking to homeless protesters about their options.
"City officials are working with non-profits to seek solutions and have identified shelter space for all of these people," Mandle said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Alan Raybould)