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HousingHomelessnessSan Francisco continues homeless sweeps, during storm, defying a federal court order

San Francisco continues homeless sweeps, during storm, defying a federal court order

New legal filing shows how cops continue to roust the unhoused even when the city can't offer any safe and secure shelter.

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San Francisco is defying a federal court order and continuing to do sweeps of homeless encampments during the massive storms, forcing people out of their tents when there isn’t enough shelter and nowhere for them to go, a new legal complaint alleges.

The administrative complaints asks federal magistrate Donna Ryu to force the city to stop the sweeps, and if necessary install a special master to make sure the city complies.

That request will be heard Thursday/12, at the same time City Attorney David Chiu asks Ryu to lift her order because it conflicts with a settlement the city made with UC College of the Law San Francisco in 2020.

The Coalition on Homelessness and several unhoused people filed suit against the city in September, arguing that it’s illegal to criminalize homelessness and that the cops and other local officials can’t break up camps and take away property unless there’s a safe, available housing alternative.

The city’s shelters have nowhere near enough room for the number of people currently living on the streets.

Although Ryu issued an injunction barring further sweeps Dec. 21, “the city is just back to business as usual,” Hadley Rood, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told me. Rood works with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, one of the groups doing the legal work, along with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the firm Latham and Watkins.

The petition notes:

Plaintiffs have witnessed Defendants’ increasingly cavalier treatment of the Order at four HSOC operations since then …. Defendants have continued engaging in sweep operations, ordering unhoused people to move, and putting their belongings at risk.

The petition includes four declarations that support what Rood said. Shana Couper Orona, a street medic and volunteer with the coalition, said in a sworn statement that she witnessed a Jan 4 sweep on Erie Street, near 13th and South Van Ness, an area that was subject to flooding:

When I arrived, it was already raining. This was the beginning of a “bomb cyclone”-fueled storm when people were urged to stay home and not travel if at all possible.1 HOT, SFPD, and the SFFD Incident Commander were present at the beginning of the sweep. There were approximately 8 SFPD cars and trucks present at the site throughout the sweep, many with their lights on.

The SFFD incident commander approached several individuals at the site who were monolingual Spanish speakers. He attempted to speak to them but, when one person responded to him in Spanish, he turned away, saying, “I don’t speak Mexican!” It did not appear that HOT had a Spanish-speaking worker present, so they were not able to communicate with these individuals at any point during the sweep. The Spanish-speaking individual was left to try and pack up his belongings as quickly as possible, and the City did not communicate that any move was voluntary or temporary.

At around 8:20 AM, the SFFD incident commander, with SFPD present, again told everyone to pack up and move. He said that, if people did not leave the area immediately, SFPD would begin “running names,” meaning conducting warrant checks on the individuals present at the site. He also said that DPW was going to come and throw people’s property away if they did not pack up quickly enough. At this point, no concrete shelter offers had been made.

Cops arrive to roust an encampment on Erie Street. Photo from legal filing.

Ian James, an organizer with the coalition, observed a Dec. 27 sweep at Taylor and Eddy:

Of the 13 unhoused individuals present at the site, it appeared that only 4 were successfully connected with shelter. The City offered two individuals beds at a congregate shelter, MSC South. Athough those individuals verbally accepted the beds, they did not have any written confirmation of the offer or any guarantee that a transport would arrive. Instead, they waited in the cold for a transport to the shelter. Eventually, they gave up and left the area around 2:15 PM.

The city, according to the petition, has offered a range of justifications for the continued sweeps, including the bizarre argument that when the police order people to move, those orders are voluntary and temporary:

The suggestion that forcibly waking people up, standing over them, and yelling at them to move, is not an enforcement threat, flies in the face of common sense and should be precluded. Nor is there any indication that moving is voluntary or temporary.

The problem here is that the mayor wants unhoused people out of sight and mind, and is personally calling for the sweeps. Even in the middle of a massive series of dangerous storms. Even when a federal judge says it’s illegal.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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