Homeless Advocates Respond to San Francisco’s Flouting of Court Order to Stop Policing Unhoused People

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SAN FRANCISCO – On behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness, attorneys filed a brief against the City of San Francisco Tuesday evening, claiming the City has violated a court injunction by continuing to forcibly displace unhoused individuals and destroy their belongings, without providing adequate alternative shelter or affordable housing as required by law. Filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the brief argues the court should appoint a special master to ensure compliance with the injunction it issued last December.

In violation of the injunction, the San Francisco Police Department has continued to aggressively dispatch police instead of front-line service workers to respond to homelessness complaints—resulting in discriminatory policing of unhoused residents while ultimately failing to deliver on the City’s promise to finally start ending street homelessness by providing shelter and services—rather than just shuffling unhoused people around and calling it an answer to the affordable housing crisis.

The court injunction requires the City to temporarily halt enforcement of its anti-homelessness laws that criminalize sitting or sleeping in public, with exceptions for street cleaning and disability access, until shelter is actually made available to unhoused people in San Francisco. The Coalition on Homelessness is represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), ACLU of Northern California, and Latham & Watkins LLP.

“The court’s injunction protects the civil rights of thousands of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents,” said John T. Do, senior staff attorney for the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California. “The presence of uniformed police officers during these sweeps is threatening to people already suffering from the trauma of living on the streets. Yes, we have a serious homelessness problem in San Francisco. But forcing people who have no access to shelter to move from block to block is not the answer.”

Currently more than 4,000 people are forced to sleep on San Francisco’s streets every night, while temporary shelter beds are at functional capacity. In just three weeks, the City’s recently re-opened shelter waitlist already has more than 200 people waiting for a shelter placement but unable to access shelter. Meanwhile, more than 800 permanent supportive housing units specifically designed for unhoused people sit vacant. The City could house one in five homeless residents today, but its failed bureaucracy means that unhoused people are not receiving access to available units. Plaintiffs argue the City should finally deliver on its promise to provide genuinely affordable housing options, temporary shelter beds, and supportive housing units, instead of wasting its resources on ineffective encampment sweeps that only entrench the homelessness crisis at a huge cost to taxpayers.

San Francisco claims many people refuse shelter, thus justifying the City’s actions to remove them and their belongings from the street. But San Francisco’s own reporting contradicts this claim. Many people are not, in fact, offered shelter before being harassed by law enforcement. Due to poor bureaucratic systems, City workers seem to have no ability to refer individuals to an appropriate shelter or supportive housing unit that matches their needs (e.g., family shelter or a facility that can accommodate a wheelchair user).

“We all agree the streets are not an appropriate place for anyone to live,” said Zal K. Shroff, acting legal director with Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF). “Our longtime San Francisco residents are being forced onto the streets in unprecedented numbers because of sky high rents. But rather than get at the root of this problem, the City is placing blame on the unhoused for an affordable housing crisis the City has failed to address time and again. Fundamentally, our clients and the City want the same outcome: to find effective solutions to this humanitarian and public health crisis. But the only way to eliminate homelessness in San Francisco and throughout California is to for our leaders to finally deliver on their promise to actually invest in commonsense affordable housing solutions.”

Since the court issued the injunction in December 2022, the City has dispatched police, rather than outreach workers, more than 1,000 times to enforce “sit/lie” prohibitions, despite Ninth Circuit case law indicating it is not illegal for a person to simply exist in public when they have nowhere else to go. It is well documented that the City’s dispatch officers regularly use coercive language and do not clearly explain that the request to move is temporary and voluntary, as required by the court’s injunction. City staffers charged with clearing encampments are still indiscriminately destroying unhoused people’s personal property to remove all signs of visible homelessness from the City, while failing to bag and tag survival gear, medications, and other essentials for later retrieval.

Further, the City’s interactions with people living on the street, and the ongoing destruction of their property, are largely not recorded or tracked. The City has produced no meaningful information about its compliance with the court’s order, including failing to provide police records from thousands of interactions with unhoused people, leaving the court and the plaintiffs with no means to determine the extent of the City’s non-compliance with the court’s directive. Given these serious problems with compliance and the City’s lack of cooperation and documentation, Ninth Circuit caselaw indicates it is appropriate for the court to appoint a special master. A special master is generally appointed by a judge to carry out a specific action on behalf of the court to ensure its orders are being followed.

“These sweeps are harmful, expensive, and ineffective. They cause disruption in the daily lives of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents, and they build resentment and distrust, without addressing root causes,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “The City should stop policing poverty and instead spend tax dollars immediately on more cost-effective, not to mention compassionate, solutions. We must provide permanent supportive housing for unhoused individuals who might need additional help tackling mental health challenges and addiction caused by being forced into street homelessness, as well as significantly more housing for all San Franciscans who are living in poverty, to stop this vicious cycle.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear an appeal of the underlying case, Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco, in August.

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