SAN FRANCISCO — Homeless people and their advocates are asking a federal judge for an emergency order to stop the city of San Francisco from dismantling tent encampments and forcing unhoused people to move along from public property until the city has enough shelter beds to offer as alternatives.
The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California is assisting with the San Francisco lawsuit filed by homeless people and their advocates, which alleges that the city clears out encampments not to connect homeless people to services and housing but in response to neighborhood complaints.
Plaintiffs also want a preliminary injunction to stop San Francisco from seizing tents, clothing and other belongings of homeless people unless it follows its own policies of bagging and tagging items for safekeeping for up to 90 days. They will ask the court at a hearing Thursday for a special master to keep tabs on the city.
Attorneys for San Francisco say its policies balance the rights of the unhoused with a need to keep San Francisco’s public spaces clean and safe. In court documents, attorneys said that homeless people are asked to leave an encampment only after receiving and declining an offer of shelter.
They also said that city policies allow them to dispose of certain items, including garbage and items that present a health or safety risk, but that other items are bagged and tagged and stored for 90 days.
“San Francisco aims to provide permanent, secure housing to all who need it. We look forward to discussing with the court the city’s services-first approach and the significant investments the city has made to address our homelessness crisis,” said Jen Kwart, spokeswoman for the office of City Attorney David Chiu.
The Coalition on Homelessness and seven people who are homeless or formerly homeless sued the city in September, the latest in a yearslong battle between politically liberal San Francisco and the thousands of people sleeping on sidewalks and in vehicles along neighborhood streets.
It’s a battle playing out in other western U.S. states, where more homeless people tend to live unsheltered outdoors than inside shelters, frustrating homeowners, businesses and government leaders. In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled it unconstitutional to cite or arrest people for sleeping in public when there is no shelter available.
Last week, a federal judge issued an emergency injunction to stop the city of Phoenix from conducting sweeps of a large homeless encampment downtown, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Arizona. Authorities cannot enforce camping bans on anyone unable to obtain a shelter bed and can only seize property that is illegal or a threat.
The ACLU of New Mexico and others sued the city of Albuquerque this week, alleging officials are destroying encampments and criminalizing people for being homeless.
Zal K. Shroff, senior attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, another legal organization representing the coalition, said San Francisco needs at least an additional 4,000 shelter beds and much more affordable housing.
Homeless people are ordered to pack up and leave even before outreach workers know the number and kinds of beds available that day, resulting in offers of shelter that are largely performative, he said.
“Clearing tents just means throwing someone’s entire life into a garbage can. That is not solving homelessness,” said Shroff. “It’s a temporary fix so people can think that their neighborhood looks nicer for a day.”
But attorneys for San Francisco described in documents a more methodical process in which the director of the Healthy Streets Operations Center, the city office that coordinates encampment cleanups, identifies by mid-week spots to clean the following week, taking into account the number of beds projected to be available.
Outreach workers go to targeted encampments over the weekend to explain what will happen, assess residents for housing, and post written notices of the upcoming cleanup, according to court documents. The Department of Public Works will not begin cleaning until outreach is complete, the city states.
“San Francisco trains its employees on these policies and through effective oversight ensures these policies are followed,” attorneys for the city wrote. “In the absence of systemic training failures, plaintiffs have offered no basis for imposing municipal liability on San Francisco.”