Late yesterday, the Coalition on Homelessness and seven individual plaintiffs filed suit against the City and County of San Francisco and Mayor London Breed for their efforts to criminalize homelessness through an array of brutal policing practices that violate the constitutional rights of unhoused San Franciscans. The plaintiffs are also seeking a preliminary injunction to stop these practices on an emergency basis. Plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, as well as the global law firm Latham & Watkins LLP.
For years, San Francisco has claimed that it is taking steps to address the City’s homelessness crisis. But in fact, the City is forcing unhoused people out of sight—destroying their survival belongings and citing and arresting them for sleeping in public when they have no shelter to go to. San Francisco has more laws penalizing homelessness than any other place in California, and possibly America. These regressive mass incarceration era policies only perpetuate San Francisco’s homelessness crisis and scapegoat unhoused people for the City’s egregious failure to support affordable housing for San Francisco residents.
San Francisco lacks—and has always lacked—adequate affordable housing and shelter for thousands of unhoused San Franciscans. San Francisco’s threats, citations, arrests, and removal of unhoused residents from public spaces therefore violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The City is also engaged in a practice of illegally seizing and destroying the personal belongings of unhoused residents in violation of the Fourth Amendment. These practices help San Francisco claim that it is solving the homelessness crisis—when it has actually just swept it under the rug.
San Francisco’s homelessness crisis is one of unaffordability. When longstanding residents can no longer afford to stay in their homes, they are forced out onto the street. San Francisco’s politicians have understood this for years, but they have failed to act. Instead, the City has consistently relied on tough-on-crime policies to respond to homelessness instead of addressing the root cause of the problem: the clear lack of permanent affordable housing.
This is immoral, cruel, costly, and ultimately counterproductive—not to mention unconstitutional. The City knows this because it constantly violates its own policies that purport to require a humane, services-first approach to the homelessness crisis. The reality is that unhoused San Franciscans wake up to find their survival belongings seized and destroyed as they face criminal penalties for sleeping outside even though the City has little to nothing to offer San Francisco’s unhoused residents in terms of shelter, housing, and services. This lawsuit combines massive amounts of public data with eyewitness accounts to expose the City’s unlawful conduct, which makes it almost impossible for the thousands of affected San Franciscans to exit homelessness.
Those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco are disproportionately people of color due to decades of discrimination in housing, education, healthcare and the criminal justice system. Today, for example, Black people comprise 6% of San Francisco’s general population but make up 37% of the City’s unhoused population. Black renters in San Francisco still face some of the worst housing discrimination anywhere in the country. That targeted exclusion has only exacerbated the homelessness crisis for people of color.
San Franciscans deserve real solutions to homelessness. That starts and ends with the City actually investing in affordable housing. This lawsuit seeks to hold the City to account for its unconstitutional attack on unhoused San Franciscans. The City cannot punish unhoused people for a housing crisis it created.
Plaintiff Nathaniel Vaughn, a life-long San Franciscan who recently became unhoused, reflects: “We do not deserve to be treated like criminals and to have our belongings thrown in the trash when we are at our most vulnerable.”
Plaintiff Toro Castaño notes the impact this has on unhoused people: “The City’s sweeps [are] a dehumanizing disruption to the small ounce of stability that I was trying to build for myself during one of the hardest times of my life.”
Plaintiff Sarah Cronk says the same: “We are just trying to scrape by and build as much of a life for ourselves as possible—with both dignity and safety. The City makes that impossible for us.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness: “San Francisco’s homelessness crisis is its affordable housing crisis. Instead of investing in permanent affordable housing, the city has spent millions of dollars to rid our neighborhoods of visible signs of homelessness. Punitive approaches make homelessness worse, as it only makes it harder for people to access already limited services, find employment and secure stable housing.”
“The City is using unhoused residents as the scapegoats for a crisis of economic and racial justice that it helped to create. San Francisco should fight to end homelessness. But the only real solution to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis is housing. Instead of solving homelessness, the City has invested in carceral policies that make the crisis worse. That’s not only unconstitutional, it’s also just bad policy. We should expect better far better from our political leaders.” - Zal Shroff, Senior Staff Attorney, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area
“Racism is embedded in the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco as people of color are disproportionately targeted by anti-homeless ordinances. The current system is complaint-driven, allowing housed residents to dictate traumatizing enforcement against unhoused people who attempt to live in whiter, gentrifying neighborhoods. This suggests that the City is doing more to appease wealthy homeowners than it is to support the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable with real opportunities out of homelessness. Through the lawsuit, we aim to lay bare the City’s illusory shelter options and end the racist results that criminalization produces.” - John Do, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU of Northern California