Early in the afternoon in late April, Steven Garrett left the tent that was his home near Octavia and Waller and went to the General Assistance Office.
When he returned, according to a declaration filed in SF Superior Court, Department of Public Works crew had taken all of his possessions and thrown them in a pickup truck.
“I asked the DPW worker for him to give me my things back. He said he could not because the things were already in the truck,” Garrett said. “He did not bag and tag my things.”
Among the things taken:
My paperwork, tools that I needed for my work, socket wrench set, allen wrenches, phone chargers, all my food and the cooler it was in, an inflatable mattress, blankets and pillow, and all my clothes.
That’s against the law: The city can’t sweep homeless people off the streets unless there’s adequate shelter available—and they can’t take people’s stuff unless they put it in bags, attach tags that will allow the owner to reclaim it, and bring it to a place where the unhoused can go and get it back.
Garrett is not alone.
A legal filing by the Coalition on Homelessness cites a long list of specific cases, from 26 witnesses, where the city is violating a court order and conducting illegal sweeps.
“I frequently witnessed City workers destroy unhoused peoples’ property,” Dylan Verner-Crist, an ACLU investigator who has been monitoring the sweeps, said in a court filing. “At the sweep operations I attended, I watched City workers throw out usable sleeping bags, mattresses, clothes, furniture, tents, food, backpacks, suitcases, and other belongings, even when the belongings were evidently neither trash nor abandoned.”
From Verner-Crist’s declaration:
At the encampment sweeps I attended, numerous unhoused reported that the City had either failed to offer them shelter or had offered them shelter that did not meet their needs and that, as a result, they could not accept. For instance, some encampment residents reported that the [Housing Outreach Team] workers had never spoken to them. Others reported the HOT workers had only offered them shelter in congregate housing, adding that they had previously been sexually assaulted or had severe psychiatric symptoms in such restrictive or unsafe settings.
The city is still dispatching armed police officers to address complaints about homeless people, records obtained by the Lawyers’ Committee show. Between December, 2022, when the injunction was issued, and May, 2023, SFPD officers responded to 1,120 calls for people sitting on the sidewalk and 3,166 times for “homeless complaints.”
“It’s still a law-enforcement response,” John Do, a lawyer for the ACLU, told me.
This, as Mayor London Breed is demanding more money for cops to address drug dealing and retail crime.
Meanwhile, the records show that police and city officials are repeatedly putting out misinformation about the court injunction, blaming the unhoused and their advocates for a situation that the city has failed to address.
The coalition, with the legal support of the ACLU, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the firm of Latham and Watkins, has asked a federal magistrate to appoint a special master to monitor the city’s compliance with a court injunction that bars the city from rousting unhoused people unless there is adequate shelter available or taking their possessions without a process for getting them back.
At this point, the filing notes, only the ACLU and the Coalition are monitoring the situation—and when an ACLU investigator or a Coalition staffer is on site, cops and city workers are much more likely to follow the law.
But the two nonprofits don’t have the resources to monitor every sweep all over the city. From Jennifer Friedenbach, the coalition’s director:
After the issuance of the Court’s preliminary injunction, the Coalition has assumed that it would no longer need to closely monitor the City’s conduct. Unfortunately, the Coalition quickly learned that Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) displacement operations would be proceeding as scheduled, and that San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) would still be dispatched in response to complaints about homeless individuals sleeping in public. … Our budget and our resources are extremely limited. This ad-hoc, reactive monitoring work is not sustainable for the Coalition and its mission.
From the legal filing:
San Francisco is not complying with this Court’s preliminary injunction. While attempting to stay and ultimately terminate the Court’s injunction, the City has persisted in routinely criminalizing homeless individuals who have no access to shelter and has indiscriminately destroyed their personal belongings. Plaintiffs have diverted their extremely limited resources to uncover and document these ongoing and numerous violations whenever possible. But the City has made it impossible for Plaintiffs or this Court to assess the extent of the City’s non-compliance by failing to provide the thousands of dispatch reports, incident reports, and other enforcement and property logs that would show how many law enforcement interactions have violated the Court’s injunction to date.
Given the complexity of the thousands of enforcement, displacement, and property removal interactions the City has with unhoused individuals every month—all occurring without meaningful oversight—Plaintiffs request that the City be required to issue detailed reports under oath addressing compliance with the Court’s preliminary injunction, and that a Special Master with limited powers of inquiry be appointed to appropriately assess how the City is complying with the Court’s injunction during the pendency of this action. These necessary prophylactic steps to enforce the Court’s injunction reflect a measured solution to monitor and safeguard compliance with the Court’s order without the need to initiate contempt proceedings.
The injunction only prevents the City “from enforcing or threatening to enforce” enumerated “laws and ordinances to prohibit involuntarily homeless individuals from sitting, lying, or sleeping on public property.” Dkt. No. 65 at 50. The Court’s preliminary injunction order was replete with factual findings that establish that unsheltered San Franciscans have had no practically available access to appropriate shelter in the City—both at hundreds of SFPD enforcement operations and even at formal HSOC resolutions where shelter is purportedly supposed to be made available.
The Court also enjoined the City from violating its Bag and Tag policy, which requires the City to store personal property collected from the street that has not been abandoned and that does not represent an immediate health or safety risk.
That, the filing says, is not happening.
On many occasions, the City’s offer of shelter consisted of their Homeless Outreach Team (“HOT”) workers asking an unhoused person a cursory question, such as “You’re not interested in shelter, are you?” or “Are you interested in going inside?” before walking on. Unhoused people present at encampment sweeps who I interviewed about these shelter offers reported that these interactions do not provide them with enough information to know whether the City actually has a real shelter bed to offer them and, if so, what type of bed they are being offered and if the bed accommodates the needs of their family (such as being grouped together) or their disability (such as an accessible space). People were ordered to move despite this.
I frequently witnessed City workers destroy unhoused peoples’ property. At the sweep operations I attended, I watched City workers throw out usable sleeping bags, mattresses, clothes, furniture, tents, food, backpacks, suitcases, and other belongings, even when the belongings were evidently neither trash nor abandoned.
Here’s a description of one sweep:
At approximately 10:00 AM, the City workers began to get more aggressive. SFFD Incident Commander Patrick Hardiman approached one man in the encampment, Donovan Harding, and told him that he had been there all morning. Patrick then told Mr. Harding that he would have to start to move his belongings or “we’re going to start throwing [them] into that machine,” and pointed at a DPW dump truck stationed nearby. Mr. Harding appeared confused and tired. He was pale and did not respond. Instead of assisting the unhoused people, the City’s workers criticized and mocked them. At approximately 11:05 AM, I heard a DPW worker complaining to his colleagues about outreach organizations that provided aid items to unhoused people, adding, “If we stopped giving them [belongings], we wouldn’t have to pick [them] up.” Approximately five minutes later, SFFD Incident Commander Charles Patrick Hardiman walked directly by one woman who was hurriedly packing up her belongings, remarking as he passed, “Welcome to the sh*t show.
Five years ago, Troy Hawthorne was living on Harrison Street when someone set his tent on fire. According to his legal declaration, he escaped with third-degree burns on much of his body and was hospitalized for seven months. Doctors had to amputate seven of his fingers.
“Since then,” he said, he suffers from PTSD: “I get night terrors in which I wake up screaming. I struggle with paranoia and trusting other people.”
He now uses a wheelchair and can only walk a few feet without it.
He has had severe problems in congregate city shelters, and currently lives on the street with his 17-year-old son, who he cares for.
From his declaration:
On April 6, 2023, at approximately 9 AM, City workers with the HOT team came to talk to me at my tent. They told me that the City was doing a sweep and asked if I was interested in shelter. I said yes. They then told me that my son could not go with me. They did not tell me why.
On or around February 6, City officials came to the tent where Henry Jones was living, at approximately 7 AM. They told him they were with HOT and he had to move, court documents show.
“They told me that I would have to move within the next few hours. I told them that I had thought there was a court order that prevented them from sweeping me. They told me that they did not care about the court order and that I would have to move,” he stated in a declaration.
At approximately 7:10 AM – only 5 or 10 minutes after they had told me to move – the City workers began throwing out my belongings. They threw away my bikes, two sets of tires, a dog stroller, a pair of shoes, and a lot of other possessions. None of it was trash. I told them that the belongings weren’t trash and I wanted them back. They told me that the belongings were already on the truck and that I couldn’t have them back. The incident commander, SFFD Captain Patrick Mullaney, told me, “Once it’s on the truck, it’s on the truck,” and refused to give me my belongings back.
I then noticed that my dog was missing. I didn’t see where my dog had gone, so I asked some people on the other side of the street what had happened to my dog. They told me that the City workers had taken my dog. I then went back up to the SFPD officers to ask for my dog back. They told me that they could not help me.
I spent the next thirty minutes looking for my dog, but I couldn’t find him. I never found my dog and still have not.
There are unhoused people who have jobs. The sweeps can derail those employment opportunities.
Jerry Cannon, for example, is a handyman who does basic repair work—and he gets his clients through the web. Or he did:
About 3 weeks ago, the City—DPW—took my tent, took 3 phones in my tent, a tablet and a laptop. I was out looking for work, and when I came back, my tent, everything was gone and a friend of mine told me that DPW came and took my stuff from where I was staying on Mission and 15th. Without my phone, laptop, and tablet I cannot do my work to make money. I put my email out there so people can contact me if they need a repair for a good price. It’s quality work at a fair price.
And there are unhoused people who try their best to keep the streets clean. Here’s Krystle Erickson:
I have noticed that, since the injunction, DPW will drive by and not pick up trash, even when it is clearly set aside and we want them to take it. We want clean streets also—I would like for DPW to pick up trash and keep the street clean, so long as they are not taking people’s clearly unabandoned property.
Meanwhile, public records show, the cops and city officials are telling the public misleading information about the injunction.
Mayor London Breed has been saying in public that the injunction prevents her office from forcing people into shelter, which is her latest approach to the problems on the streets.
In emails obtained by the Lawyer’s Committee, senior police brass repeatedly say that their “hands are tied” by the injunction and city officials say they are unable to keep the streets clean.
In fact, all the law, affirmed by the US Supreme Court, says is that “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
The crisis on the streets is not entirely, or even largely, of Mayor Breed’s making. Homelessness started to be an issue in US cities after Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the federal government stopped paying for public housing, and safety-net systems like welfare and SSI were dismantled or defunded—and tax cuts for the rich made housing much more expensive.
And the state Legislature has made the situation way worse with the Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins, which take away tools cities could use to prevent homelessness.
And now she says the crisis is the fault of the Coalition on Homelessness, which sued the city to prevent illegal sweeps that are, in fact, deadly.
We don’t know exactly when the judge will rule, but it’s entirely possible that San Francisco will be paying for a special monitor to watch how Breed’s administration abides by a federal court order.