Mayor London Breed says that new appeals-court guidance allows SF to resume homeless encampment sweeps, based on language about the meaning of "involuntary" homelessness, and a memo Monday announced plans to restart the sweeps.
We are now a full year into the ACLU and Coalition on Homelessness’s lawsuit against SF for clearing encampments, which led to the interim (but still in effect) December 2022 injunction from U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu that SF had to temporarily suspend encampment sweeps except under certain circumstances. That suit builds off a 2018 ruling in Martin v. Boise, which has been upheld so far by the Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court, banning penalties for the homeless camped on city land when no adequate shelter is available to give them.
The December injunction was appealed by City Attorney David Chiu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which led to a huge rally featuring Breed on the August day that a three-judge panel of the court heard that appeal. But the appeals court has not actually ruled on anything, despite the protests and counterprotests outside their courthouse.
The Ninth Circuit issued some guidance earlier this month, in the denial a motion by the city to modify the lower court's injunction, which Chiu immediately interpreted to mean that encampment sweeps could move forward unless individuals were "involuntarily homeless."
Chiu declared victory at the time of that brief ruling, saying that the court "agreed with the City that the preliminary injunction does not apply to those who refuse shelter or those who have a shelter bed and choose to maintain a tent on the street."
Breed has taken up this clarification and in a memo posted to Medium Monday, and announced that city workers will resume regular encampment clearing with the caveat that those who are camped will be given offers of shelter first.
To be clear, this is a matter of semantics — encampments have been cleared in the last nine months if tents were obstructing sidewalks or other rights of way, or if they posed public health hazards, among other conditions.
"San Francisco has more permanent supportive housing per capita than any other city in the country besides Washington DC," Breed writes. "San Francisco was one of the few cities in California that saw a reduction in homelessness between 2019 and 2022... But despite all of this work, some have attacked us and sued us over our homelessness policies. This obstruction has not helped get more people into housing or shelter."
So, tents and stuff will continue to be swept, Breed says, but the sweeps won't resume right away.
“To make sure our workers are supported and confident in their work with this change, over the next few weeks we will be reiterating and updating their training and making sure they understand what they can and cannot do in line with the injunction and Ninth Circuit’s recent clarification,” Breed added in the memo. “People who have been offered available shelter should not be allowed to remain out camping on our streets.”
As Coalition on Homelessness CEO Jennifer Friedenbach tells the Chronicle today that their lawsuit "has been about the city citing and arresting people who have no choice to be on the street — as well as taking their property and throwing it in the garbage. That’s been the case all along."
Friedenbach adds, "Our intention is to try to get more people off the streets, and that is our goal of this lawsuit, and we would love to work with the city to do just that."
The ACLU's and Coalition on Homelessness’s lawsuit against San Francisco will still be in the courts for quite some time to come, and could ultimately reverse what Breed sees as this short-term victory. The case could also eventually be appealed up to the Supreme Court, depending on how things shake out.
An entirely separate case out of Grants Pass Oregon, which the Ninth Circuit ruled on in July, could be the first to get a potential Supreme Court hearing, and/or the San Francisco case could get bundled alongside it — though the issues are slightly different. In that case, homeless individuals were being cited with fines attached for camping on public land, and the Boise case directly bans penalizing or criminalizing the homeless when shelter isn't available as an alternative.
Image: @RafaelMandelman via Twitter