It’s no longer news that San Francisco’s efforts to clear out homeless encampments have been met with a stumbling block in the form of legal conflicts. In September 2022, the Coalition of Homelessness (COH) dragged the city to court for violating its rules regarding clearing encampments.
According to COH’s attorneys, San Francisco refused to provide adequate shelter for the homeless before destroying their property and trashing their personal belongings.
The interim legal director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), Zal Shroff, in an interview, stated that unhoused people were arrested in their thousands just because they weren’t wealthy enough to shelter themselves.
In his words, “You can still clean the streets…but you can’t keep policing unhoused people from block to block solely for the crime of being too poor to afford a home when you obviously haven’t given them a place to go.”
In December, the court gave an order that prevented the city from continuing its sweeps against “involuntarily homeless” people. San Francisco isn’t allowed to clear out the encampments as long as the number of homeless people is higher than the number of available shelter beds. Note that San Francisco makes the list of the top cities with unhoused people in the country.
However, the city isn’t backing down as they have asked the appeal courts to lift the ban, citing health and safety risks. San Francisco also claims that the people living on the streets are refusing the help the city is offering. COH alleges that this is untrue as the city’s shelter beds can only cater to half of the people living on the streets.
On Wednesday, 23rd August, there was a face-off between protesters against the injunction and counter-protesters outside San Francisco’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, the venue of the court hearing to determine the appeal. While some of them chanted, “clean the streets,” others responded with “stop the sweeps.”
Mayor London Breed who joined the rally stated that the injunction was not the right way to help the people. “It is not humane to let people live on our streets in tents, use drugs. We have found dead bodies, we found a dead body in these tents. We have seen people in really awful conditions and we are not standing for it anymore,” she said. “The goal here is to make sure that the court of appeals understands we want a reversal of this injunction that makes it impossible for us to do our jobs.”
Inside the courtroom, COH’s attorney Joseph Lee argued that San Francisco was using the encampment sweeps as “a tool to criminalize homelessness and keep involuntarily homeless individuals from sitting, sleeping or lying anywhere at any time of day or night.”
However, David Chiu, the City’s attorney said that Lee had made a major concession when he agreed that any homeless person who rejected genuine alternative housing options could not be seen as “involuntarily homeless.” “We are pleased Plaintiffs agree that enforcement action can be taken against individuals who refuse shelter,” Chiu said.
It isn’t clear when the appeal court will give it’s ruling on this matter, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.