Coalition on Homelessness et al vs. San Francisco: Lawyers Make the Case for Stopping Sweeps

San Francisco’s response to unsheltered homelessness has long been on the radar of local and national media, and it’s pinging more frequently, partly because of a lawsuit that the Coalition on Homelessness has filed against the City.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that the City can not arrest or issue citations to people in homeless encampments without a real and specific offer of shelter while the case is in litigation. In September, the City unsuccessfully appealed the order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court, but Mayor London Breed and other City officials still declared victory, saying that it agreed on its definition of “involuntary homelessness.”

Based on that assumption, the City has since ratcheted encampment sweeps. At a recent town hall, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins vowed that the City would make living on the street uncomfortable for unhoused people. The City also signed on to a legal brief with other cities and organizations asking the U.S. Supreme Court to examine a similar case in Grass Pass, Oregon.

To clarify why it’s pursuing litigation against the City, the legal team representing the Coalition and seven unhoused residents hosted a webinar on December 8 explaining the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial next October. The image San Francisco presents in its homelessness response doesn’t match its actual practices when clearing encampments, said Zal Shroff, acting legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area.

“We’re here because there’s a huge gap between the city’s written policies and their good intentions on the response to homelessness, and the actual outcomes,” he said.

Those outcomes Shroff referred to include over 3,000 citations and arrests of homeless people  over the last three years and the destruction of undamaged property, which according to City policy are supposed to be “bagged and tagged” for up to 90 days.

“At a minimum, we need San Francisco to start following the law and to start following its own policies,” he added.

A judge ordered a preliminary injunction because the City violated those policies and the U.S. Constitution, John Do, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said. He argued to the 9th Circuit that the City couldn’t substantiate those offers of shelter before citing and arresting people.

Currently, City-sponsored shelters accommodate over 3,000 people are nearly full while the number of people on the adult shelter reservation waitlist hovers around 400, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. 

“That’s because what San Francisco actually does is when it does supposedly offer shelters, those offers are often illusory,” Do said. “San Francisco of course, is thousands of beds short, so it’s hard to offer what doesn’t exist.” 

Former City staffers have also noted in filings that other workers were “incentivized” to pad the numbers of refusals to nonexistent offers and justify arrests of encampment residents, he added. 

Misinformation on what the injunction does and doesn’t empower the City to do also abounds, Do said. It’s not a total ban on clearing encampments: Workers can still clean streets and enforce public safety laws, but only if they make real and specific shelter offers. 

Still, the line of people being “service resistant” persists, but that’s because unhoused people rarely get genuine or appropriate offers, said Sara Rankin, a law professor at Seattle University. They’re already aware of long waitlists for shelter and housing, she said. Other barriers, such as ineligibility due to criminal backgrounds or substance use history, preclude some homeless people from accepting services, she added.

“The reality is that we have taught many unsheltered people to distrust offers of shelter and services because they have learned time and time again that these offers are misleading, not real, completely inaccessible or just inhumane,” she said.