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Advocates for Unhoused San Franciscans Say Encampment Sweeps Continue Despite Court Order, Call on Judge to Rein City In

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Tents on a sidewalk in a city.
Tents are seen on a sidewalk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco on Dec. 28, 2022. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Lawyers for unhoused San Francisco residents and their advocates say the city isn’t complying with a court order to stop sweeps of homeless encampments until it has enough shelter beds for those on the streets. It’s the latest in the ongoing lawsuit challenging the city’s homelessness response.

In a motion filed Thursday (PDF), they’re asking the court to take steps to ensure the city doesn’t clear encampments or destroy unhoused people’s property while the suit moves forward. They want the court to appoint a special master to monitor the city’s actions, and require the city to produce sworn compliance reports.

“We’ve been seeing property destruction and we’ve been seeing people being removed from public spaces without offers of shelter,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “While we’ve seen improvements in the city’s response, we believe that they continue to violate the judge’s order.”

In December, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the city from sweeping homeless encampments and citing people for sleeping on the streets. The ruling was based on evidence that the city isn’t offering shelter or following its own rules about seizing unhoused people’s property.

The order came after attorneys for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the ACLU of Northern California filed suit in September on behalf of the coalition and seven city residents who are currently or were formerly unhoused over its sweeps of homeless encampments, arguing that forced displacements and destruction of property violate their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit is asking the court to prevent the city from punishing people for sleeping on public property or seizing their belongings until the city can guarantee the availability of appropriate shelter.

The city has been trying to fight the preliminary injunction, and is still waiting for a decision on its appeal. A spokesperson for the city attorney said San Francisco is following the court order and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on shelter and services for unhoused residents. “The City is also working to ensure San Francisco’s streets are clean, safe, and provide a sufficient path of travel for all, including persons with disabilities,” spokesperson Jen Kwart wrote in an email, adding that the office is reviewing the new motion and will respond in court.

The mayor’s office won’t comment, citing pending litigation. But Mayor London Breed has been outspoken in her criticism of the court order, arguing it is hampering the city’s ability to take on the issue.

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Still, ACLU attorney John Do, lead counsel on the case, said there were indications almost immediately that the city wasn’t complying with the preliminary injunction. “In early January, when we were faced with those series of atmospheric rivers, the city continued to destroy people’s survival gear right in the middle of that,” he said.

Do and his colleagues gathered declarations from 26 witnesses to dozens of enforcement actions they allege violate the court’s preliminary injunction. The witnesses include a public defender, an ACLU investigator, coalition staff and unhoused individuals who say city staff have continued to destroy their property and forced them to move as many as 20 times since the injunction was issued.

A white woman standings preparing a document, wearing a blue dress, and a man and woman beside her in a large crowded hall.
Jennifer Friedenbach (right) of the Coalition on Homelessness helps people lining up to question speakers at a town hall city budget meeting at the Tenderloin Community School, in San Francisco, on March 16, 2011. (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The lawyers also draw on public dispatch data showing the city is still sending police, rather than outreach workers, to respond to complaints about homelessness, including for sit/lie enforcement, which is barred under the preliminary injunction.

Advocating for court intervention, the lawyers write, “The preliminary injunction cannot serve its purpose of protecting Plaintiffs from the City’s unconstitutional conduct while such unlawful conduct persistently evades this Court’s review.”

Friendenbach said ultimately she hopes the lawsuit leads to an overhaul in how the city addresses homelessness. She argues aggressive tactics can compound trauma and be counterproductive. She wants to see a trauma-informed approach that builds trust and matches services to needs. “We’re really trying to get a more thoughtful response that’s effective, that leads to people getting off the streets,” she said.

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