San Francisco Still Clearing Encampments Despite Lawsuit, Injunction

San Francisco Homelessness

Credit Image: © Barbara Munker/DPA via ZUMA Press

San Francisco city officials are still forcing people out of encampments and illegally disposing of their belongings despite a judge’s order to the contrary, according to advocates.

Advocates filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness and seven people experiencing homelessness in September of 2022. 

According to the suit, the defendants—which include the city, several city departments, and Mayor London Breed—have violated the plaintiffs’ Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights by clearing encampments, seizing and destroying property, forcing people out of encampments despite lack of adequate shelter and criminalizing homelessness. The city violates its own policies in carrying out these acts, failing to provide adequate notice to encampment residents and neglecting to bag and tag seized property for people to collect later. Similar suits have been filed against the cities of Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Despite the suit, San Francisco officials continued enforcement of camping and sleeping bans until the plaintiffs asked for an injunction in December 2022. In their request for an emergency order, plaintiffs’ lawyers noted the city violates Martin v. Boise, a 2019 decision stating that no municipality may enforce outdoor sleeping or camping bans when there is no adequate shelter provided.

According to the lawsuit, there were 7,754 people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco in 2022, with nearly 60 percent living unsheltered. In order to house them all, the city would need to construct nearly 6,700 new affordable housing units.

U.S. Magistrate Donna Ryu granted the injunction, calling the city’s arguments in its defense “wholly unconvincing” and stating that the defendants had failed to counter evidence that it offered adequate alternative shelter to those it cleared from encampments.

City Ignores Court Order to Stop Sweeps

At that point, officials were supposed to stop invading encampments and destroying personal property. However, Sam Dodge, who works for the city’s Department of Emergency Management, acknowledged at a public hearing on Jan. 17 that city workers—including police—are still “engaging” with large encampments twice a day. Hadley Rood, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said that her clients see the encounters as “business as usual.”

“Defendants have continued engaging in sweep operations, ordering unhoused people to move, and putting their belongings at risk,” read an affidavit presented to Judge Ryu.

Sweeps even continued throughout the deadly storms that swept through California in early January.

On the morning of Jan. 4, when a bomb cyclone hit Northern California, a Coalition on Homelessness volunteer witnessed a sweet at an encampment at which a San Francisco police officer “attempted to speak to multiple unhoused monolingual Spanish speakers at the encampment, then quickly gave up, saying, ‘I don’t speak Mexican.’,” the volunteer wrote in a declaration to the court.

“A short time later, according to the declaration, the SFFD incident commander ‘again told everyone to pack up and move. He said that if people did not leave the area immediately, SFPD would begin ‘running names,’ meaning conducting warrant checks on the individuals present at the site. He also said that [Department of Public Works] was going to come and throw people’s property away if they did not pack up quickly enough. At this point, no concrete shelter offers had been made.'”

Nor were shelters readily accessible.

San Francisco Public Press’ Madison Alvarado and Yesica Prado talked to more than two dozen people who could not access adequate shelter over a three-day period during the storm, despite assurances from officials that shelter would be available.

“We talked to many people in vulnerable situations who did not have the ability to search online to figure out where shelters were or how to get to them,” Alvarado and Prado wrote. “Also, the city’s shelter dashboard does not explain clearly which shelters have beds available in real-time.”

The Public Press article stated that several shelters were closed during the storm because they were at capacity.

While the plaintiffs argue that this is a common occurrence—shelters at capacity, waitlists closed, offers of temporary shelter hypothetical and often unreliable—the city’s lawyers quibble over the definition of “involuntarily homeless.”

The city’s arguments also ignore the reasons unsheltered homeless people might not want to leave their encampments. Shelters often have numerous restrictions for entry—no pets, sobriety, mental health counseling—that they find untenable. Shelter spaces lack privacy, and many worry about exposure to disease or violence. Strict hours can make it hard to hold a full-time job. Many shelters don’t accept families.

None of that takes into account the unreliability of San Francisco’s tracking system—and it seems to wildly overestimate the number of available beds. A recent study found that only 10 to 50 beds are available through the city’s shelter system on any given night.

“San Francisco says it has enough shelter for everyone, but in fact, they never have enough shelter—on 80% to 90% of the days, they don’t,” said Zal Shroff, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Shroff said no one is objecting to moving the encampments for a legitimate reason.

“If there is a genuine health and safety matter going on, such as sidewalk access, then a camp should be able to be moved. But what’s actually happening is people are being punished for the mere act of being homeless. Not for any safety violation or any actual criminal violation,” he said. “What, in fact, San Francisco is doing is trying to remove the visible signs of homelessness, and all they’re doing is moving the problem around.”

The city plans to appeal the injunction. The case is set to go to trial before Judge Ryu in April of 2024.

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall is a freelance journalist from Upstate New York. She is especially passionate about social justice, voting rights and women’s issues.

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