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HousingHomelessnessSome city officials are asking the courts to endorse more homeless sweeps

Some city officials are asking the courts to endorse more homeless sweeps


I got a press release this morning from the South Beach Democratic Club, which reads as follows:

Supervisor Dorsey and Supervisor Mandelman will be holding a rally to call attention to Judge Donna Ryu’s court order in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco. The preliminary injunction order issued on December 23, 2022, prohibits San Francisco from enforcing or threatening to enforce certain laws prohibiting public lodging or camping against “involuntarily homeless individuals” as long as the number of people experiencing homelessness exceeds the number of available shelter beds.

A hearing on the appeal will take place on Wednesday, August 23rd, 2023. The exact timing and order of the proceeding is still TBD. More details will be shared closer to the hearing date. Please join small business owners, community leaders and residents from across San Francisco on Wednesday, August 23rd, 2023, at 9 am in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (95 7th St, San Francisco, CA 94103). 

Rafael Mandelman and Joel Engardio have been among the most outspoken foes of the federal court injunction, which prohibits the city from criminalizing unhoused people and seizing their possessions when there is no adequate shelter available.

You can’t solve homelessness with sweeps

It’s based on a landmark federal case in Boise ruling that cities can’t enforce laws against camping on public property when there is nowhere for homeless people to go.

The two supes, the mayor, and a long list of conservative organizations, have railed against the injunction, saying it prevents the city from clearing homeless encampments. They use the excuse all the time in emails to constituents: We would love to clean the streets, but the courts won’t let us.

This case, and the politics around it, represent a crucial moment in San Francisco. The plaintiffs, including the Coalition on Homelessness, say the city can’t blame the unhoused for its own failures to provide affordable housing; the critics, including Mandelman and Engardio, say the city’s streets can’t be “the waiting room” for housing.

The problem here is that the city is required, both by state law and this injunction, to provide more affordable housing than local government can possibly finance. And under the administration of Mayor London Breed, the city has been resisting the use of existing and possibly future tax money to start making a dent in the crisis.

The Coalition sent a letter to City Attorney David Chiu, offering to discuss a settlement of the ongoing litigation:

The letter outlines proposed settlement terms that fall into three categories: first, ensuring San Francisco prioritizes the rapid development of affordable housing and expanding access to temporary shelter; second, creating a new framework for the City’s response to street encampments; and third, ongoing monitoring of the City’s actions to ensure it follows through.

Chiu called the offer a “political stunt.” He said:

The injunction has put the City in an impossible situation, straining the City’s ability to meet practical and legal obligations. It also creates absurd results, such as leaving the City unclear about whether it can enforce laws against those who refuse shelter or have shelter beds but choose to maintain tents on the street.

That, the Coalition’s lawyers say, it just wrong. The evidence in the case is very clear, as the district court found:

(“[i]t is beyond dispute that homeless San Franciscans have no voluntary ‘option of sleeping indoors,’ and as a practical matter ‘cannot obtain shelter’”); (“the parties agree that at this time, a homeless San Franciscan who wants a shelter bed has no avenue to ask for one, much less get one”).

The Breed Administration, and the city attorney, want the courts to go back in time, and allow the criminalization of homeless people—perhaps in the hope that they will somehow disappear.

But that has never worked, and it never will. The city can “resolve” encampments by moving people around (typically out of wealthier areas), but there’s nowhere for those folks to live.

I will remind everyone: Homelessness is the result of neoliberal economics (supported by a long line of San Francisco mayors) and cuts in the social safety net, combined with city policy supporting a massive influx of wealthy tech workers at a time when there was already a housing crisis.

When I moved to San Francisco in 1981, there were very few homeless people. Welfare and SSI paid enough money to cover food and a cheap hotel room. Now, welfare hardly exists and SSI won’t cover more than a week or two inside.

Ronald Reagan cut federal spending on housing in cities—and it never came back, under Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or Joe Biden.

Instead of fighting this injunction, maybe Chiu and Breed ought to get with the Coalition, the ACLU, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and sue the state and the federal government, demanding that they provide enough money for the affordable housing that is the only solution to the crisis.

Or at least start buying up buildings while we can.

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
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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