SF's Encampment Sweep Debate

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An African American woman in a blue suit dress looks on with a crowd of protesters holding signs as a white man in a suit and tie pumps his fist in the air while speaking into a microphone outside of a building.
District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey speaks at a rally in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on 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)

View the full episode transcript.

Under what circumstances should San Francisco be able to clear homeless encampments? Last week, protesters and counter-protesters went head-to-head outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over an injunction that limits the city’s ability to do that. KQED’s Sydney Johnson unpacks this legal battle, and explains why it has sparked such strong feelings.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to The Bay. Local news to keep you rooted.

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London Breed: We are compassionate, we are supportive. We continue to help people. But this is not the way anything goes in San Francisco. It’s not the way.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: It was a pretty tense scene outside a courthouse in San Francisco last week where Mayor London Breed and city leaders were protesting over one big question How much should the city be able to clear homeless encampments and move the people living there? The city has been under a court order that puts limits on encampment sweeps. And people in San Francisco have strong feelings about it.

Fred Winograd: Outside of my door, someone can camp and stay there and not be moved because of this injunction. But that’s harmed the residents and the businesses of this city.

Terri Beswick: I love that the court took a stand on this and I hope that they stick to it and say, you know, you if you want people off the streets, you have to give them somewhere to stay.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, what this legal battle means for encampment sweeps in San Francisco and beyond.

Sydney Johnson: So essentially you have the Coalition on Homelessness, which is representing a group of individuals who are or were recently experiencing homelessness, who sued the city of San Francisco for essentially not following its own laws as it relates to clearing homeless encampments.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Sydney Johnson is a reporter for KQED.

Sydney Johnson: People representing different city agencies are meant to approach the people or person who lives there and ask them, you know, would you like shelter or some sort of housing option that has to happen in these sweeps. If there isn’t someone, you know, at the their belongings, but it’s clear that someone probably is staying there. The city also has a process that is called bag and tag, where they’re supposed to actually label the items and bring them to a place in the city where individuals can actually go and retrieve them. So all of those policies that we talked about offering shelter, bagging and tagging personal items, you know, these steps that are supposed to happen before an encampment is cleared. The plaintiffs in this case argued that the city had not been doing. Now, the city argues that it does lead with services, that it does do this, it understands and it does not deny that there is a huge additional need for more housing and for more temporary shelter. But the city says, you know, we do make these offers, we do follow our policies. But it’s arguing that the lawsuit has made it even more difficult for the city to respond to those calls that it gets from residents saying, hey, I’m concerned about this, you know, encampment.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: The news last week was about this injunction. Can you explain to me what is it and what did it do exactly?

Sydney Johnson: Last September and 2022, that was when the lawsuit was first filed. That was when the coalition on homelessness sued the city of San Francisco just before Christmas Eve, also of last year. The judge granted a temporary injunction, which basically was a temporary order that said, hey, San Francisco, you cannot keep doing these encampment sweeps in the way that you’ve been doing it until you know this next step in the case. And that temporary injunction is still active right now. That doesn’t always mean that the city just can’t do anything right. If someone is breaking other laws while they’re sitting or lying. You know, that is a way that the city can still enforce its laws. The lawsuit came a bit to a head because there were two hearings. The city had tried to get the judge to release them from this injunction, and that was heard in a court. There were rallies happening outside on both ends, and it got pretty intense.

Protesters: [Chanting] Save our streets!

News Anchor: Even before the hearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals got underway. Both sides were arguing…

Sydney Johnson: There were some videos of people shouting directly at each other. However, you know, it did, I think, speak to just some of the frustration and also passion that people in San Francisco and across California right now really are feeling about this issue.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, let’s dig into that a little bit more. Sydney, I want to start with the people who came out for this injunction, which to be clear means that they oppose the city doing sweeps more aggressively. Who came out last week on this side? Like, who is at the courthouse?

Sydney Johnson: So definitely lawyers from the ACLU and other attorneys who are representing the Coalition on homelessness were there. So all of those policies that we talked about just a minute ago, you know, these steps that are supposed to happen before an encampment is cleared. The plaintiffs in this case argued that the city had not been doing. In some circumstances, they said that city agencies would maybe just sort of wave a hand at shelter, not really genuinely offer it. In addition, they also had a lot of evidence showing that that bagging and tagging process was not being followed as well.

Zal Shroff Unhoused folks have a constitutional right against being policed out of sight just because they have no housing to go to.

Sydney Johnson: Zal Shroff is the interim legal director with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s been really involved in this case and essentially argues that San Francisco has not been following its own laws that are on the books and its own policies around what it can and can’t do to clear homeless encampments.

Zal Shroff So you can’t go around seizing and destroying people’s tents. You have to safeguard their property. You have to store it. You have to give an opportunity to recover it.

Sydney Johnson: It’s all essentially walked me through some examples where the city has, you know, flagrantly just disregarded some of those bag and tag policies. You know, told me some pretty heartbreaking stories of people who had lost really important medications, devices that they use to contact family members or even sign up for shelter, since that’s an online system now and that they had lost these items without much recourse.

Zal Shroff The injunction goal was to have a disciplining effect to make sure the city’s goals were actually aligned with its actions, to make sure that when we actually approach an encampment, we have enough shelter. Folks, we are successful in getting them off the streets and into shelter and housing and the actually improving street homelessness conditions. That has not been the experience since the injunction because it’s very unclear whether or not they’re following it.

Sydney Johnson: He is is really trying to underscore. Or that this lawsuit is not about just allowing the streets to delve into chaos. I don’t think anyone wants that. But, you know, he and others who are supporting this case say that the city needs to come up with actual solutions if it’s going to force people to move. And also just acknowledging the harm that is caused by forcing people to move.

Zal Shroff You know, I think we are, in a way talking past each other about the root causes of the homelessness crisis and also what causes street homelessness, because, of course, we know that a lack of access to shelter and a lack of access to affordable housing is the cause of the street homelessness crisis. And yet we have a huge gap in terms of what the city has been able to offer to actually mitigate that issue. And we see a real scapegoating about how people who are a problem that is really decades in the making.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, let’s talk about the other side of this debate. Who was at the courthouse on that side.

Sydney Johnson: The opposing rally that was there last week was really arguing for being able to clear encampments under most circumstances.

London Breed: We are compassionate. We are supportive.

Sydney Johnson: Outside the courthouse, we saw signs that said, you know, streets are not homes. We had a very fiery mayor London breed against the injunction, saying that the city should be able to clear encampments.

London Breed: We had prepared through our city attorney to do whatever it takes to make sure we are able to do our jobs.

Sydney Johnson: She brought up some pretty hard examples that are really, I think, get to the emotion at the core of this issue.

London Breed: It is not humane to let people live on our streets in tents, use drugs. We have found dead bodies. We have found a dead baby in these tents. We have seen people in really awful conditions and we are not standing for it anymore. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Sydney Johnson: You know, some pretty horrific and heartbreaking stories. You know, she did really rally a lot of that anger that people are having with seeing the poverty that they do see on the streets of San Francisco.

David Chiu Today, the city presented our case on why this injunction has been so difficult for San Francisco.

Sydney Johnson: City attorney David Chiu was also there. He has been leading the case against this lawsuit and also the appeal against the injunction. You know, similarly, he said that the city’s hands have been tied when it comes to resolving these encampments that many people are complaining about.

David Chiu I think everyone understands how incredibly challenging the situation is on the streets, how frustrating it has been. You only have to look out of the windows of the Ninth Circuit Courthouse building to see what’s happening in our streets. What the city’s hoping to do is balance the compassionate care and services that we want to provide to unhoused individuals with addressing the significant street conditions that we have throughout the city.

Sydney Johnson: We also saw three of the city’s more moderate supervisors, their supervisor, Mandelman, Engardio, and Dorsey. They were also there supporting David Chiu and supporting Mayor Breed, essentially arguing for the city to have more flexibility to carry out these sweeps.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I know the city says that it should have the right to sweep people out of an encampment, especially if they refuse offers of shelter or housing. Do we know how often that happens?

Sydney Johnson: That’s a hard question to answer. There are, of course, some individuals who may reject a shelter option for them. I think that that’s a reality that shouldn’t be denied. However, I think that more often there is just not shelter available or offered, or if there is shelter that’s offered, it’s not always appropriate if it’s a congregate group home where someone had stayed out previously and maybe had a really horrible experience that might not be an appropriate shelter for them. If someone is transgender and offered a shelter for a home that they do not identify with, if it’s separated by gender, that can be really harmful as well. Not to mention families or people with pets or, you know, certain disabilities that may prevent them from getting on a top bunk or something like that. This question of like what is genuine shelter and what is a real shelter offer, I think is a really important one because we know that shelter in general and housing in general is so scarce.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, it sounds like the city very much believes its hands are sort of tied under this injunction and also that a lot of the anger on this side comes from this sense that, like the city is being too lenient or too compassionate by having this injunction in place. Is that a good way, maybe to summarize?

Sydney Johnson: Yeah, I think so. I’d say that that side is is really arguing for basically putting cleaning the streets before the rights of people who are homeless and are forced to live on those streets.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What’s next, Sydney?

Sydney Johnson: There’s still a long way to go for this case. The judge is now considering the arguments over whether to appeal the injunction, but we probably won’t have an answer on that for a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months. And again, that is just for the injunction. So this temporary rule that the city cannot carry out sweeps in the way that it has been doing the full lawsuit and litigating, that is going to take even longer.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, do we know certainly whether there are implications beyond San Francisco here? Could this maybe escalate or even spread to other parts of the state that are dealing with, I mean, really the same problems that we’re seeing in San Francisco?

Sydney Johnson: Yeah, I think that this has big implications for the West Coast in general. I think, you know, whether you are a lawyer trying to think about civil rights in this space, whether you are a resident trying to be compassionate or better, understand homelessness in your area and looking for solutions. I think that there is a lot of interest and certainly a lot of feelings associated with this. And I think that that has also been part of why this has gripped so many people.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Sydney, thanks so much.

Sydney Johnson: Thanks, Ericka.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Sydney Johnson, a reporter for KQED. This 38-minute conversation with Sydney was cut down and edited by Maria Esquinca. It was produced and scored by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Thanks as well to Billy Cruz and KTVU for some of the tape that you heard in this episode. If you’re new to The Bay, what’s up? Make sure to hit subscribe wherever you are listening so you don’t miss a beat. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thank you so much for listening. Talk to you next time.

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