A legal battle between homelessness advocates and the city of San Francisco has escalated, as the city is accused of violating a court order restricting enforcement against people living on the streets. City officials argue that they have a legal duty to take some action against unhoused residents who refuse shelter.
On January 6, the Coalition on Homelessness submitted new legal documents alleging the city has “continued engaging in sweep operations, ordering unhoused people to move, and putting their belongings at risk.” Advocates say they observed sweeps on December 27, January 3 and January 4—the day the city was struck by a severe storm.
The Coalition on Homelessness originally sued the city of San Francisco in September 2022, alleging it was targeting unhoused residents without offering them shelter. According to legal statements from people living on they streets, they were forcibly evicted from their settlements by police, threatened with citation or arrest, and had their belongings seized and thrown in the garbage during early morning raids. These included expensive items like tents, computers, medical devices, wheelchairs and bicycles. They claim they were not offered shelter beds, despite the city’s promise that everyone who wants one will get one.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs asked a judge to order the city to stop the raids, and to keep residents’ belongings in storage for 90 days, instead of destroying them.
The plaintiffs stated that at the most recent head count in 2022, over 4,300 people were unsheltered—57 percent of all unhoused residents in the city. And city officials admitted in court that the shelter system is at capacity, with thousands of people who can’t get a bed. The officials also claimed they destroyed homeless residents’ belongings because of the presence of drug “paraphernalia” in them—but the judge found the city couldn’t prove this. The city allows workers to dispose or destroy items found in public that pose a health risk.
City Attorney Chiu claimed the judge put the city in an “impossible position.”
But on December 23, Judge Donna Ryu of the federal district court in Oakland issued a partial injunction that stopped San Francisco officials from continuing its raids, “as long as there are more homeless individuals in San Francisco than there are shelter beds available.” According to the plaintiffs, the city conducts raids through its “Healthy Streets Operations Center,” which includes officials from the police department, fire and several other agencies tasked with responding to encampments.
In response, City Attorney David Chiu filed a motion on January 3 asking Judge Ryu to make her order clearer. Because the judge’s order restricts enforcement against “involuntarily homeless individuals,” Chiu claimed she put the city in an “impossible position,” by leaving it unable to enforce its laws against an unhoused person who refuses shelter. Chiu also said that a previous legal settlement requires the city to take action against people who refuse shelter.
He was referring to a lawsuit filed in May 2020 by the Hastings Law School and five other plaintiffs, regarding homeless encampments in the Tenderloin neighborhood. Under the settlement of that case, the city agreed to take “all reasonable efforts” to “permanently” remove tents from the sidewalk, and prevent individuals who refuse shelter from staying on the streets.
“As of now, one federal court order limits the City’s enforcement and another federal court order mandates enhanced enforcement,” Chiu said in an official statement. “These two orders cannot exist harmoniously without further clarification.”
Yet despite that fact that the December 23 injuction still holds amid more pending legal action, the city is reportedly continuing with its raids.
“Dedicated and talented city workers are providing a lifeline to people living on the street.”
Jen Kwart, communications director for the City Attorney Chiu, claimed the city is complying with the court order, which doesn’t prevent it from maintaining safe public areas. “The City may continue to ensure sidewalks are not obstructed, but are usable for everyone,” she told Filter. “And, the City may still ask unhoused people to move temporarily for cleaning activities.
“Dedicated and talented city workers are providing a lifeline to people living on the street,” she continued. “Since the Court’s order on December 23, San Francisco’s social workers and medical teams have connected people to shelter, and provided a range of health services, information, and referrals.”
According to Coalition on Homelessness filings reviewed by SFGATE, an observer claimed on January 4 that they saw a member of the fire department try to move Spanish-speaking homeless people out of an encampment, then tell them “I don’t speak Mexican.” The firefighter allegedly threatened to do open warrant checks on people in the settlement, threatening that sanitation workers would come and destroy their property if they didn’t move—and no shelter beds were offered.
Kwart denied this. “The City vehemently disagrees with the Plaintiffs’ assertions and characterizations,” she said. “Notably, the [fire department] Incident Commander will declare under oath that he never made the alleged offensive comment towards unhoused Spanish-speaking people.” Kwart said a Spanish-speaking worker was on site to communicate with residents during the incident.
Filter reached out to the Coalition on Homelessness but was unable to obtain comment by publication time. On January 12, the judge will hold a conference with both sides to address their concerns.
Increasing confrontations between city officials and unhoused residents have been a result of Mayor London Breed’s campaign in San Francisco. In December 2021, Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, calling for police to end “the reign of criminals who are destroying our city.” Breed promised that anyone spotted using drugs in public would be sent either to treatment or jail.
Governor Gavin Newsom (D) announced on January 9 that he wants to allocate $750 million in the state budget for eliminating camps.
And in July 2022, newly elected District Attorney Brooke Jenkins promised to go harder after people who sell drugs that are “destroying people’s lives and wreaking havoc on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin.” Jenkins had helped lead the campaign to recall and oust former DA Chesa Boudin, in an election where Boudin’s reform-minded policies were framed as “soft on crime” and scapegoated for visible homelessness and drug use.
On the state level, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) announced on January 9 that he wants to allocate $750 million in the state budget for eliminating camps. “People want to see these encampments cleaned up. They’re fed up,” he said. Enforcement would be included in a $15.3 billion package to address homelessness.
In 2018, a federal appeals court ruled that it was unconstitutional for unhoused people living on the street to be evicted from encampments if a city cannot provide them with shelter beds, because it would amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Supreme Court declined to take up the case on appeal, meaning it remains precedent in the states of the Ninth Circuit, including California.
Photograph by Dan Brekke via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0