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Advocates Argue San Francisco is Violating Encampment Clearing Ban; Judge Says They're Not — For Now

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a row of tents in a plaza in front of city hall
Tents line Fulton Street near San Francisco City Hall in 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

An effort to more strongly enforce an ongoing ban on homeless encampment sweeps in San Francisco won’t be happening just yet.

On Thursday, a district court judge said the city was not violating some of its policies when it came to a ban on clearing homeless encampments — but she requested more information on other policies before she could rule on the entire motion.

The hearing on Thursday was held over a motion (PDF) meant to more strongly enforce a temporary injunction (PDF), which stops the city from indiscriminately sweeping the streets of people who are unhoused. This is just part of an ongoing legal battle, which had a separate hearing earlier in the week over whether the injunction should be lifted or not.

More on Homeless Encampment Sweeps

The Coalition on Homelessness, who sued San Francisco in September 2022, brought forward this motion. They’re arguing that the city has been violating the temporary ban on clearing homeless encampments, which was originally ordered by the same U.S. Magistrate Judge, Donna Ryu, in December 2022.

Today, Ryu ruled that the city was not violating a clause in the injunction that stops the city from “threatening to enforce” certain laws that prevent someone from sitting, lying or camping on sidewalks or other public spaces.

However, the judge delayed ruling on claims that the city has been violating its own so-called “bag and tag” policies during routine street cleanups and permissible encampment resolutions. The judge will review those claims after receiving additional information from the defendants.

When city agencies, like the Department of Public Works, clear a homeless encampment or an individual’s sleeping site but no one is present, they are required to bag and tag personal belongings so the individual can later retrieve them. Whether they are doing so or not is what’s under review.

“It’s likely there are DPW workers who bag and tag, but it also appears some are not. Some of the instances I called out are pretty clear and pretty blatant,” Ryu said in Thursday’s hearing. “I have a concern that at least the training should be more robust.”

The judge ordered attorneys representing the city to submit more information by Sept. 22 on how it responds to calls regarding homeless encampments — including how many officers interact with unhoused people and if the city would consider adding more training for those officers.

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The judge also requested more information on what type of training DPW workers received about the original injunction.

Ryu said that plaintiffs could retry their motion around threats of enforcement, but that they would need stronger arguments and analysis.

“It seems to me that clearer communication, uniform communication, would be helpful across the board to the people of San Francisco,” Ryu said.

Thursday’s hearing followed another major hearing in the lawsuit that took place on Wednesday, when a three-judge panel heard arguments over whether to consider appealing the same temporary injunction that prevents the city from moving unhoused people under certain circumstances.

a group of people hold up signs in front of a court building, one man yells into a megaphone
District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey speaks at a rally in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Dorsey voiced his opposition of the injunction filed by the Coalition on Homelessness, which has temporarily kept city workers from removing encampments on the streets. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

In that hearing, plaintiffs and judges clarified that a person who denies genuine offers of shelter during an encampment clearing would no longer be considered “involuntarily homeless.”

The distinction between who is or isn’t involuntarily homeless is important because the injunction only bans sweeps of those who are involuntarily homeless, meaning that if someone refuses shelter, the city can proceed to enforce its laws against sitting, lying or camping in public spaces.

The city’s appeal to remove the injunction is still processing, and it will likely be several months before a decision is made.

Several city leaders showed up to support the city attorney’s effort to appeal the injunction on Wednesday, including Mayor Breed and three moderate supervisors, saying the ban has stymied the city’s ability to clear streets and sidewalks.

Community members and homeless advocates also rallied in front of the courthouse Wednesday, saying that the injunction is necessary to stop unlawful sweeps and bring about more effective solutions to the homeless crisis.

After Thursday’s hearing, Gov. Gavin Newsom released a public statement in support of striking down the injunction.

“In California, we are cutting red tape and making unprecedented investments to address homelessness, but with each hard-fought step forward, the courts are creating costly delays that slow progress,” Newsom said. “I urge the courts to empower local communities to address street encampments quickly and comprehensively.”

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