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San Francisco Will Enforce Sit-Lie Laws When People Refuse Shelter

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A series of tents lined up along a city sidewalk.
A homeless encampment on a sidewalk in San Francisco on Sept. 2, 2023. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

San Francisco will continue clearing tents from sidewalks and enforce the city’s sit-lie laws when people refuse offers of shelter, Mayor London Breed declared Monday.

Breed’s announcement follows recent guidance from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on a lawsuit started in September 2022, when the Coalition on Homelessness sued the city of San Francisco for violating its own ordinances around clearing homeless encampments.

In December 2022, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu ordered an injunction to prevent the city from enforcing sit-lie laws if no shelter is offered.

“For this entire year, a federal injunction has limited the city from enforcing certain laws against those who refuse shelter on our streets,” Breed tweeted on Monday. “The good news: a recent clarification from the court now sets a path forward for us.”

The mayor underscored that city workers will receive updated training on how to clear sidewalks and engage with unhoused people in a way that complies with the temporary injunction barring the city from forcefully moving someone living on the street without first offering them a genuine shelter option.

Last month, Judge Ryu ordered the city to do exactly that, while the city’s appeal against the overall injunction is under review.

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“Our city workers have been doing the best job they can in carrying out encampment resolutions under the injunction, and they are now getting prepared to enforce these laws in light of this recent clarification by the Ninth Circuit,” Breed wrote on Monday on X, the social media website formerly known as Twitter. “This preparation is necessary so our workers understand what has changed, but also because the plaintiffs in this case will still be out interfering with their work. Filming them. Trying to tell our workers what they can and cannot do.”

Attorneys for the Coalition on Homelessness, representing both the ACLU and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, argue that the city has violated federal precedent by not providing appropriate shelter before removing unhoused people, and that the city trashed personal belongings during its sweeps.

“Where we continue to see political theater from the city is this assumption or at least this articulation in the press that there are mass shelter refusals,” Zal Shroff, interim legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, told KQED on Monday. “That doesn’t actually pan out in the data, even remotely.”

The city is still thousands of temporary shelter beds and housing units short of meeting the current need. There are only about 3,500 shelter beds in San Francisco’s overloaded system, and as of Thursday, nearly 400 people were on the online shelter wait list.

Officials representing the city, including the mayor and City Attorney David Chiu, said that the lawsuit and temporary ban on sweeps when shelter is not available have thwarted the city’s ability to keep sidewalks clean and free of hazards.

An issue throughout the legal conflict has been whether or not the city can forcefully move people who are considered “involuntarily homeless” and what that means.

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Last month, the Ninth Circuit clarified that people who reject a valid shelter offering cannot be considered involuntarily homeless and, therefore, the city can enforce its laws against public sleeping and camping on sidewalks and in parks, in those cases.

In reviewing San Francisco’s appeal, Ryu asked the city to report how it trains law enforcement and street clearing crews, and to also identify which city workers have and have not been trained on the specifics of the injunction.

Regardless of the injunction, the city has been able to carry out most of its street cleaning and public safety operations, and can enforce many of its laws governing street and sidewalk activity. For example, under the injunction, the city can still clear encampments for accessibility, such as in the case of an emergency or providing room for a wheelchair passage, if they give 72 hours notice. The injunction does not impact law enforcement around health and safety codes, including drug use, and the city can still clear encampments for certain health or safety reasons.

Gov. Gavin Newsom — formerly the mayor of San Francisco — meanwhile has also criticized the judge’s rulings in San Francisco’s homelessness lawsuit, as well as similar cases and rulings that have provided the basis for Ryu’s decisions.

Those cases include Martin v. Boise and Johnson v. Grants Pass (PDF), which both have directed cities not to force unhoused residents to move unless they are offered shelter.

On Friday, Newsom issued an amicus brief (PDF) asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Grants Pass, Oregon case and urging the court to give cities more freedom to clear encampments.

“While I agree with the basic principle that a city shouldn’t criminalize homeless individuals for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go within that city’s boundaries, courts continue to reach well beyond that narrow limit to block any number of reasonable efforts to protect homeless individuals and the broader public from the harms of uncontrolled encampments,” Newsom said in a press announcement. “It’s time for the courts to stop these confusing, impractical and costly rulings that only serve to worsen this humanitarian crisis.”

Breed wrote on Monday on Medium that “over the next few weeks we will be reiterating and updating [city workers’] training and making sure they understand what they can and cannot do in line with the injunction and Ninth Circuit’s recent clarification.”

Shroff, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said that there’s never been any dispute over the definition of involuntarily homeless, and agreed the city can enforce sit-lie laws when someone rejects an appropriate shelter option.

He disagreed, however, with the idea that shelter is commonly rejected. Instead, he argues that the city has continued to sweep encampments without following protocols outlined in the city’s own policies, which include to offer shelter and to “bag and tag” personal belongings rather than disposing of them.

“The shelter system is at capacity every single day of the year because there is such a high demand for shelter and because for decades the city has failed to meaningfully invest in affordable housing for vulnerable residents of the city during the time of a tech boom and unprecedented and skyrocketing rents,” Shroff said. “They’re clearly seeking some justification for their continuing enforcement operations.”

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